St. Petersburg in June. These annual pilgrimages bring me back to the city of my birth, back to the White nights – a peculiarly indeterminant condition, a confusion of time and space that I just can’t get out of my system. No matter how far I travel, no matter for how long I’m absent from this ghostly place… I can never quite leave it. We arrived a couple of days earlier and this particular evening finds our jet-lagged group floating blissfully on the canals. There are fifteen of us on the boat: twelve students, myself, my close American friend and colleague Nick, who is also a co-faculty on the trip, and a female Russian friend of mine: the mysterious Dasha. Nick has a bit of a crush on Dasha. Quite a bit of a crush, actually. We’re passing around a bottle of cognac, because it’s Russia and thank god there is none of that “you have to be 21” nonsense. American students are deliriously happy at this newfound freedom and take full advantage.
Tonight, Nick has a morose demeanor. Must be the effects of jetlag or maybe the proximity to Dasha. He looks…– pale – “white like a canvas, white like a piece of paper, white like a freshly laundered sheet” as my mom, who loves colorful (pun unintended) metaphors, would say. “Anything wrong?” I ask him. He nods slowly: “Yes, I’m in terrible pain…” – “Where?” – “Down there,” he points at his lower abdomen, then winces. “Since when?” – “Since this morning. I hoped it would go away but it’s getting worse… shit.” – “Why did you keep quiet?!” He looks furtively at Dasha and I immediately know why. “Where exactly does it hurt?” He pauses for a second, then leans into me and whispers under his breath: “In my sack… I think we need to go to the hospital.”
I ask the boat captain to let us out at the nearest dock. We make sure the students have their metro cards and they claim to understand river crossing during the White nights – they need to be on the other side of the river before the bridges go up. Ah, those bridges – they connect and divide, the dark waters flowing underneath – indifferent to the stragglers, stuck on the opposite banks of the river. It is unwise, of course, to leave the students unattended on their second night in an unfamiliar city, but when I see Nick’s face distorted in a grimace of pain all hesitation dissipates – we need to get him to the hospital asap. The students look on uncomprehendingly, but they are being great sports and assure me that I have nothing to worry about. All inebriated giggles and youthful ebullience, they march off towards Nevsky prospect while Dasha and I proceed to flag down an unmarked cab. Nick is writhing in pain, he’s half-collapsed on the granite parapet of the embankment, oblivious to the screams of seagulls and even Dasha’s presence.
Nick is smart and sophisticated but not well-versed in the intricacies of Russia. And Dasha IS Russia and therefore has a complicated personal life, which at this very moment includes the presence of a young surgeon, a married father of two. The surgeon happens to be on duty that evening and apparently, his marital indiscretions notwithstanding, is generally a decent guy. Or maybe he just cannot say no to Dasha. In any event, he is prepared to see the patient but needs to know what exactly is wrong with him. Dasha quickly turns to Nick and switches to her imperfect but self-assured English: “Nik, ver daz it hert?” Nick looks at me desperately. But what can I do – we need to tell the doctor where it hurts. I try to remain controlled but blurt out, “It’s his balls.” Dasha is taken aback but quickly recovers and communicates the complaint to the surgeon, who says we should rush to the hospital – he’ll secure us a pass.
The cab driver turns out to be a Russian Israeli, in town for the summer to study “Eastern medicine.” Apprised of our predicament, he recognizes an opportunity to practice. He races at breakneck speed across town, steering with his left hand while using his right hand to alleviate Nick’s condition, which seems to be getting progressively worse. The driver is especially fond of what he refers to as a “Vietnamese method” of identifying pressure points on the patient’s palm. Each point, he explains, is responsible for a particular organ or body part. “Which point is responsible for testicles?” I ask him. Suddenly I’m curious about the method. The driver grabs Nick by the hand and presses his thumb into the middle of my friend’s palm. Nick moans. “I think it’s right here,” suggests the driver, sounding pleased.
The surgeon is waiting for us on the loading dock by the hospital morgue. Nick is half-delirious with pain and blissfully unaware of his surroundings. The surgeon is good-looking and friendly and Dasha gives him a quick affectionate hug. He explains that since we’re here in violation of hospital regulations we’ll need to enter through the back door, which is also the door of the morgue. Two male nurses hoist Nick up on a gurney and roll him through the rarely- traveled path from the morgue and into the emergency room. He looks seriously scared, the hospital’s dilapidated interior doesn’t help to relieve his anxiety. The place presents, feels, and smells post-apocalyptic – the peeling paint on the walls, the sour aromas of hospital food, the strong whiffs of formaldehyde. Dasha and the doctor have fallen a few steps behind, I see them holding hands and exchanging quick kisses. The two of them appear to me almost otherworldly in their obliviousness to the dilapidated interior of this god forsaken hospital.
Nick’s examination takes less than ten minutes. I stay beside him to translate, of course, but also not to leave him alone. The doctor comes up to me and lights a cigarette. I don’t like the look on his face. “It’s a typical case of Testicular Torsion,” he explains. – “What?” – “Commonly known as Twisted Testicle. We need to operate.” – “Can we first evacuate him back to the States?” The doctor shrugs: “Absolutely, you can, but you’ll be evacuating a corpse. Another couple hours and the gangrene will set in and then…” he waived his cigarette “one less American.”
Now I have to explain to Nick that he needs surgery immediately. He doesn’t take the news well and, frankly, I can’t blame him – the decrepit state of the hospital doesn’t inspire confidence. The doctor needs to confer with his superiors, then returns looking concerned: “The chief doctor is really worried, he doesn’t want the responsibility of operating on an US citizen. What if something goes wrong? There will be an international scandal!” I recognize the concern as an invitation to negotiation: “What can I do to make him less worried?” The doctor pauses for a second, then pulls out a notepad from his gown’s breast pocket and writes down a number, which he considers pensively before expertly drawing a bottle of whiskey next to it. “Either or?” I ask. – “Both.” I think that the chief doctor’s concerns are quite affordable and nod my consent. “Well, there will be some other expenses,” adds the doctor, apparently encouraged by my quick compliance. I nod again. Who cares? We need to save Nick’s balls. Oh, scratch that – we need to save Nick. But there is one more thing, one little bureaucratic wrinkle: They will only operate if Nick signs a consent form that he won’t hold the hospital liable for any “unintended consequences.” Like what? The doctor scratches his head: “Well, all sorts of possibilities: loss of erectile function, heart failure, death…” I don’t feel like communicating these to Nick, who is moaning next to me on the gurney. “I think he’ll freak out if I ask him to sign this document,” I explain to the doctor. “But look, he can’t be any more freaked out than he already is,” he responds and I find his line of argument quite reasonable. Together we draft the document (they don’t have any special forms, so we have to improvise). “Don’t forget to mention the possible castration,” the surgeon suddenly remembers. Nick overhears his words and apparently understands them, he is now moaning louder than ever before. I talk to him soothingly: “Listen, it’s just a formality, everyone signs such documents before going into surgery.” – “Bullshit,” he responds, “it’s really fucked up, they’ll cut off my balls in a Russian hospital. And I’m not even forty. Jesus!” Fighting back tears, he signs the form.
We’re about to roll the gurney towards the elevator when my cell phone rings. It’s my girlfriend, calling from a bar in New York. She is having a night out with friends, had a few drinks, dialed.. I can hear the dull din of voices and music in the background, then an emergency siren – the sounds of New York. I miss her terribly. God knows, I’d much rather be in that bar in the Village. “Everything ok?” she asks perfunctorily. “Not ok,” I blurt out suddenly, surprising myself but feeling the excitement of the one delivering terrible news. “Not ok at all! They may have to castrate Nick…” And that’s when I drop the call, the line goes dead.
We’re finally ready to roll Nick to a prep room next to the surgical ward. The doctor leaves the room to fetch a nurse to prep Nick for the operation. He returns a few minutes later visibly annoyed. “The nurse is ill-disposed,” he explains. I feel the smell of alcohol on his breath – “Drunk, you mean?” – “You could say so,” he responds somewhat mysteriously. “So what do we do NOW?!” He gives me a quizzical look: “You ever shaved a guy?” The patterns on the floor linoleum begin to swim and change shapes in front of my eyes. “Shave how? Where?” – “What do you mean ‘where’? Down there, of course. We’re not fixing his jaw, you know.” Nick is moaning again: “What’s going on? Please, tell me – what’s going on?” – “We need to prep you for the surgery…” – “What do you mean by ‘we’?!” Once in a while (sometimes in class) you end up communicating the most preposterous, nonsensical things to people who expect you to be reasonable. It’s been my experience that in such moments it is absolutely essential to come across as matter-of-factly as possible. “We’ll need to give you a shave,” I explain to Nick trying to sound measured. A scowl of utter desperation distorts Nick’s usually pleasant features. He nods at Dasha, who is idling nearby: “Fuck. Whatever happens, please, don’t let her shave me.” I promise him that I won’t. And I don’t. Dasha’s boyfriend walks to the bathroom to pick up a piece of soap and a bowl of cold water (the hot water was turned off for the summer) and then fishes a well-used razor out of his gown’s pocket. We ask Dasha to step outside and proceed to prep Nick. What can I say… this may have been the most intimate experience I have ever shared with another human being.
* * *
The surgery takes longer than expected but it is successful. They roll Nick back from the operating room, still unconscious. Dasha and I sit next to his bed waiting for him to wake up from the anesthesia. She tells me about her complicated relationship with the surgeon who has just operated on Nick’s testicles. She asks me what I think of him and I assure her that he seems like a great guy, a real professional. She is happy to get this affirmation but informs me that she is still considering her options. Then she asks me what I think of Nick… And that’s when Nick stirs. He opens his eyes, his lips move. It is clear that he doesn’t quite comprehend where he is. He asks for a drink of water and soon after the situation begins to come into focus for him. He strains to say something, but the sounds come out all garbled and it takes me a while to finally begin understanding him. “How… many?” he wheezes hoarsely. – “How many what?” – “How many… balls?” Despite her limited English, Dasha is quicker to comprehend his question. “Two!” she announces cheerfully in Russian “You still have your two balls!” She flashes a V-sign. I translate. For a second, Nick looks puzzled, trying to process this bit of information. But eventually his face muscles relax and a happy smile graces his handsome features. He motions me to come closer and takes my hand in his. His touch is tentative and his fingers are trembling slightly. “I love you,” he whispers with unpretentious tenderness.