This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2023

The Operation

He did not hate the winter now, for he knew it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting. – Oscar Wilde, “The Selfish Giant”

Nathaniel G. Moore

Illustration by Aya Altilbani

Each time I visit, he tells me the same thing: “She is small; don’t sit on her.” My brother Jesse has mental problems. He’s twenty.

“Time is a sign for some. A policy. For some it means nothing at all. Time is cyclical and behaviors evolve to maintain their biological destiny.” This is a sentence I’ve read sixteen times now. It’s a hospital magazine and I regret picking it up—its wrinkly film of sickness and anonymous shame disturbs me almost as much as Jesse’s incessant music. I notice the dead sweat and bits of bacon from someone’s lunch encrusted on the page I’m reading.

The hospital room swells with light. My brother has been here since Remembrance Day. It’s now the third of January. He’s listening to a song I never heard till he came here.

The song indicates a type of narrative masochism; suggesting the love interest is so desirable that the singer invites them to dine on their brain—which is clearly hyperbole, a daring way of celebrating desire and love, but in the setting of this antiseptic realism in which we currently tread, I find it revolting to cling to its imagery. The most used noun in the English language is “time.” The most used word my brother uses is “I.” Which is a letter. And a name. A title?

Jesse is telling me and Ma about the tiny woman who lives with him in his hospital room.

The amount of medication Jesse is on frightens me.

The tiny woman, Jesse tells us, is sitting in a small coffee cup lid. I tap Ma on the shoulder and point to the lid, which is filled with nuts and bits of licorice cut into sunflower-seed-sized nubs.

“She’s talking again,” Jesse tells us. “Shelly, come here! You have to see!” Jesse smiles down at the coffee cup lid. “She just told me how much she loves the food I make for her!”

He’s active, he’s conscious, he knows my name. But how will he ever evolve back into the younger brother I had who joked around, worked part time at Blockbuster Video, went to high school, and played road hockey every chance he could?

“I feel scared,” he says suddenly. “What if I have an elongated ejaculation and it drowns her? I’ll be put on death row.”

I ask the doctor why my brother is having these hallucinations. “What type of medication creates these visions? He wasn’t like this before, you know.”

My brother lifts his hand and looks at it, as if it’s a comet

he’s watching leave the room. I look him in the eyes and feel them quickly rinse away any emotional gauze of vulnerability.

“She’s doing laundry in my pill caps,” he says.

“Listen to him,” I tell the doctor. “He keeps talking about this micro girl living in a small hut beside his bed.”

Jesse stands up, raising his hands above his head. “She is telling me now…she says, ‘Some of the food he gives me I put in this blender, the rest I lug over here to my small bed,’ and now she is splaying herself along a box of matches which she’s fashioned into her bed. ‘It’s so nice here. I feel so lucky to have met you, Jesse!’”

My brother’s voice changes as he speaks on her behalf.

“‘He’s a giant. He made me this way,’ she is saying.”

“Oh Shelly,” he says to me in his own voice. “She loves her life this way. Could you imagine being taken care of like that? She is so very small and says she likes the food, and that she loves the tiny scraps of lint and broken socks to make clothing. She says we are to be married soon.”

“He’s been like this for two weeks?” I tell the doctor.

My mother, who speaks no English, insists I get a straight answer from her this time. “Dr. Selka, please, you have to talk to us. My mother is losing faith. She doesn’t understand what is happening to her son. Are you a mother? She wants me to ask you.”

The doctor looks at us like we’re amateur bandits bumping into one another under a parking lot’s false lighting at three in the morning.

Jesse seems more than pleased with the way his life has turned out. But he’s not the one that has to take Ma on the subway for an hour each way, sign her in and translate every word anyone says, including strangers we pass in waiting rooms.

I try to explain to Ma that Jesse is on the wrong medication. “He shouldn’t be having these thoughts,” I tell her. “He never had them before.”

Ma folds her hands into one another and places them along her chest. She shakes her head back and forth and looks lovingly at Jesse. He walks over to her and gives her a big hug and kiss. He stands her up and takes her by the hands. As they do this, music begins to play from down the hall. The song conjures up bellbottoms and disco balls and the infamous bass and guitar and the womanly vocals the brothers were known for—and of course the Boneroo Horns; all of which are completely inappropriate for the situation we are in. Despite this, we begin to bounce our heads and move as best we can in our poorly choreographed way, much like the way our family has communicated for as long as I can remember. Ma has a big smile on her face; Jesse’s long dark bangs hang down like an arm of fur. He appears to be in good spirits.

The doctor says she’ll return in a few minutes but I’m sure we’ll get a message from a nurse in half an hour that she won’t be back until Tuesday. This is the way it goes around here.

“Hi, hi, are you Jesse’s sister?”

“Hi Ronnie,” I say. He always visits my brother when I

visit. And I always say the same thing. “It’s family visit Ronnie, can you come see Jesse later?”

Ronnie nods and slithers back down the hall in his greasy slippers. Jesse seems indifferent to the interruption.

“I’m just going to speak with the nurse,” I say, and excuse myself.

Maybe I’ll go talk to the vending machine for a while—blend in.

On the long subway ride home, I tell Ma that I want to bring Jesse home but that we need to sort out his medication first. She agrees and says it’s up to me to sort it out. Of course, it is. I don’t want Jesse home in the state he’s in now, though; he must be more independent and less focused on his fantasies.

“Excuse me, but where am I?” The voice is sharp and quiet.

I turn to Ma. She shrugs.

“Excuse me, where am I? Where is Jesse?”

I look around. The voice seems to be coming from my purse. I reach in. “Ow!” Something bit me.

“Excuse me; I know you can hear me. I’m in your belongings. This is a big purse! Hello!” And now I see her face; it’s beautiful. She has black hair, green eyes, a nose ring.

“Why am I here? I fell asleep and suddenly I’m in a purse.”

I cover up my purse with my sweater.

The tiny girl keeps speaking, but at least it’s muffled.

Ma tugs at my arm to indicate she wants to go to market before going home. I ring the bell and help her up. I remind her we can’t get too much because we don’t have the cart. She nods.

It’s cold, so I put my sweater on. “I’m missing the funny shows Jesse and I watch,” the tiny girl is saying. “Plus, he gives me little pieces of chocolate from his treats. Can you please call him to let him know I’m all right?”

In my arms are tofu, celery and tomatoes. I look next to me to see that the old woman I thought I’d been shopping with is someone else’s old world parent. I scan the aisle for Ma.

“I almost lost you,” I scold.

She has spaghetti and bananas.

I take us to the checkout before we get too overloaded.

“For Jesse,” she says, and hands me a bag of Cadbury Mini Eggs.

“He eats too much of this crap,” I say aloud.

The tiny woman in my purse who doesn’t exist assures me that she appreciates the treats as well and that Jesse has a well-balanced diet and gets plenty of exercise.

I put the eggs down on the counter and smile at the cashier.

It’s sunny outside. Beautiful and gentle. Spring is here. In the morning I’ll call the doctor and ask for an update on how Jesse’s medication is working out. I’ll ask to speak to the social worker as well, to see what can be done for him after he’s released.

I poke around in my purse for a mint. The tiny woman bites my finger as I search. It kind of tickles. “You better call Jesse,” she calls up to me. “He’ll be worried sick! How can you do this to him? He’s your brother.”

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