My Ear, My Self

For the past couple of days, I’ve had a nasty earache. I’d never had an earache before, and so I immediately assumed it meant I either had an ear infection or was one in ten-thousand people in the world with a rare condition that would confound a number of specialists I couldn’t afford before resulting in deafness and the probable amputation of my entire right ear.

The physician at the doc in the box on Tuesday looked in my ear and told me it wasn’t an infection. She said that the ear canal is bright red and highly irritated, “but the ear drum’s fine.” All this was probably due to the previous week’s irrigation of the ear to remove (sorry; grossness alert) a massive clot of earwax. She gave me numbing drops that smell like Bactine. As I lay in bed and dripped the stuff in and consciousness of the immediate world closed in, I was returned to that ocean place. I thought of that white plastic bottle of my youth, its bright red sun matching the bright red sunburns on my back as my mother squirted the cool chemical solution across my shoulder blades.

My earwax is sort of a useless adult child; instead of ever leaving my ears, it prefers to hang around way past its welcome, until its consistency is something like granite. I yawn one day and suddenly I can’t hear a damn thing, and this is how I know that it’s irrigation time again.

In the past, too, irrigation—basically, getting an ear flushed out with warm water till the earwax is loosened and drops out—has been an oddly soothing experience. I hate it when my ears are stopped up, but there’s something I look forward to in the experience that follows. Warm waves rush in, and one side of my head feels like it’s been submerged in the ocean; I close my eyes and I am in some primordial place, the slow-moving demersal deep. It feels cleansing and good and then, boom, it drains and all at once, I am back in the world, my hearing restored in sharp-crystal focus. Everything sounds completely new, completely novel. For a short spell, every sound is the original sound.

Instead of this, last Friday, the doc in the box shot a hard jet of water straight at my eardrum four times. I dug my fingernails into the chair. I had just signed three waivers that had to do with no fault, no fault, no fault for anything that resulted. My head jerked from her gun, but I walked out hearing again.

All this ear business makes my own body feel foreign. My body: not my self. Suddenly, there’s this canal that I can actually feel just under the skin on one side of my head. I know it’s there because of how it throbs. When I lie down, I feel the whoosh of fluids in there. They rush through channels I’ve never felt before and can’t access or control. The ache sharpens for a moment before being blurred slightly by something, dulled over and turned dormant. A look in the mirror reveals none of this. The woman at the Box/Doc told me there’s nothing, really, to do about it but wait. I lie awake at night and feel my heart beat through these aching channels and think: Why now? Why the three days between the powerhose and the pain? Later my boyfriend will suggest changes in air pressure, seasons, fronts, movements in the atmosphere larger than us. Uncontrollable. Now, in the night, I think, Who are we in these tiny lives we inhabit, residing in bodies, on continents, that turn on us? What do we really know?

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