THIS IS US

Dislocation

On our first overseas trip as a family, our bodies fell apart

Illustration: Calla King-Clements for Human Parts

When we began dating, Tyler and I did a lot of traveling. We started out small: Our first trip was from Boston to the tip of Cape Cod. Soon we ventured further, to California, to Mexico, to Peru. We broke up once in Key West. But I was too broke to change my ticket, and we got back together before our flight home. We got married in Maine but never took a honeymoon — I was pregnant and vomiting six times a day by then. Our first overseas trip as a family was to England, when our daughter Calla was a year and a half old.

None of us slept on the plane. Calla was too excited by the break in her routine, the tray table, and the pleasure of making her bunny dance for the people behind us. I was excited that we were crossing the Atlantic, that we were traveling again, and that my period was six days late. We’d been trying for five months to get pregnant again.

We arrived in London in the early morning and pushed through that groggy first day, wandering past Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square. Calla dozed in her stroller, but we forced ourselves to stay awake till nightfall, when we were no longer able to form sentences and she was wide awake. We brought her into our bed from the Pack ‘n Play, and she cuddled and squirmed for several more hours. Close to midnight, trying to scoot her off my pillow while rolling over, I felt the bone of my upper arm slide out of its socket.

Illustration: Calla King-Clements for Human Parts

I’d dislocated my shoulder before. The first time was playing tennis. After that, it came out every few years: once when I threw a piece of gum into a trash can, once holding onto a ceiling strap on a bus that came to a sudden stop, twice while having sex. Sometimes I could get it back in myself; sometimes I ended up at the ER. I did not want to go to the hospital that night in London. I tried to get it back in myself, but I was so tired. I couldn’t remember the movements. The pain scrambled my thoughts. I told Tyler to pull on my arm hard, but I didn’t know in what direction, and it hurt too much and Calla began to scream. I had a vague memory of my sister, to whom this had also happened many times, telling me she’d used a chair once. I hung my crooked arm over the ornate back of a wooden chair. Nothing happened. There was another, taller chair out in the hallway that I thought might be better, and that’s where the man who ran the front desk found me, flopping my unhinged arm over the furniture. He called us a taxi to the hospital. I somehow managed to pull on pants beneath my nightshirt. But no sweater, no coat. I wasn’t cold. In the cab, I looked at the floor and saw I wasn’t wearing shoes. The hospital in Chelsea was close. Calla was on high alert. Tyler was calm, his arms around us both.

“Take a seat,” the woman behind the glass at the Accident and Emergency department said, but I could not take a seat. My shoulder was concave and there was no possible position for my arm that wasn’t excruciating. I squatted right there below her and moaned and howled, and I did not care about being the dramatic American among a roomful of sick quiet Brits. I was aware of a door nearby, of voices and footsteps traveling through the space beneath it. Tyler urged the woman to let me back there. Finally, I got up and pushed through the door that I knew led to doctors and relief from this pain.

A nurse intercepted me and steered me to a plastic seat in the hallway. She told Tyler to go back out and finish giving reception my information. She told me she would get me fixed up in no time with “gas and air.”

“No drugs,” I said.

“No gas?” the nurse asked.

“No,” I whined.

I asked her if she could just find someone to slip it back into place. It was so easy if you knew how to do it. The first time I had dislocated it, playing tennis, I had been on an island in Maine, and the doctor had to be called out of choir practice, and he looked up the procedure in a fat brown book that he kept open on the examining table and read aloud from as he slid the bone back into its cradle.

“Certainly,” she said. “After the X-rays.”

X-rays? I’d never had to have X-rays before. X-rays would be another 10 or 20 minutes of pain. A technician would touch my arm and twist it in terrible ways to get their images.

“But I might be pregnant.” I hadn’t said this aloud to anyone but Tyler. I knew I was jinxing it. I started to cry then for stomping on my own luck.

“Really?” She sank down in the chair next me, the last of her brisk plans thwarted.

I nodded.

She brought me into a doctor’s office and put me in another chair. I rested my arm in my good hand, out straight like a rifle. It took a bit of the edge off. The doctor asked me many questions. She asked how it happened, why it happened, how many times before, hadn’t I thought of having surgery. She said something about X-rays being absolutely necessary in case veins or arteries or nerves had gotten in the way. I kept trying to remember how to do it myself. I looked at her shelves for a fat brown book that might tell me. You had to turn your wrist clockwise or counterclockwise while pulling your arm to the right or to the left. Which was it?

The doctor left the room and came back with a pregnancy test. “Let’s find this out before we go any further, shall we?”

This is not how I wanted to find out. I’d been waiting for the right time. After London, we planned to go to Cornwall. We were going to stop in Chawton to see Jane Austen’s house and in Dorchester to visit Thomas Hardy’s. I’d thought maybe in Cornwall, we’d buy a test if my period hadn’t come by then. I thought we’d have the best luck by the sea.

I was shown to a bathroom, and with one arm and a searing hollow shoulder, I managed to pull down my pants and pee on the stick. I handed it to the nurse waiting outside and went to sit on the plastic chair in the hallway again. Tyler, finally done with the paperwork (wholly unnecessary as we never got a bill or paid a dime—thank you, NHS), came with Calla perched like a meerkat on his arm and sat beside me. We waited. She relaxed. She started to look sleepy. I laid my head beside hers on Tyler’s chest.

A man came and sat down on my other side. His name tag read “Administrator.” He looked a little like Mr. Bean.

“The test was negative,” he said quietly.

“What?”

“The pregnancy test,” he whispered. “You’re not having a baby.” He was jolly. He thought this would be good news.

I broke down. I let out wild furious sobs. The pain and the exhaustion deprived me of any perspective or control.

“The lines were too faint,” he said when I took a breath.

“Lines?” I whipped my head toward him. “There were two lines?”

“Barely. They were very faint.”

“In America,” I explained to this administrator who looked like Mr. Bean, “two lines no matter how faint means you are pregnant.”

The first doctor heard the commotion and came out. We all went down the hallway to look at the plastic stick. Two faint lines. The doctor shook her head and said she wasn’t sure. I was still crying. Tyler was telling me everything would be okay. She led us back into the examining room and said she’d decided to put my shoulder back into place, no X-rays. They could do a blood test afterward to determine pregnancy. I liked her. Sarah Frost, her name tag said. She was going to put me back together. I knew how instantly the pain disappeared, how good it felt, and the rush of endorphins that followed. “I love you,” I remember saying to the doctor on the Maine island.

But Sarah Frost did not put my shoulder back in. In a quick bait and switch, the administrator was now beside me. He lifted my arm. He yanked. He twisted. I screamed, and Calla screamed, and Tyler took her out of the room, and the bone did not go back in its socket. This part had never been painful before. This part feels like dropping into a warm bath; it feels like a slow mellow orgasm. The administrator was sweating. He dropped my arm, took a breath, and tried again. I saw his fear; I saw how little he knew, this man who said a pregnancy test with two lines was negative. Then, at last, my arm slid back into place. But it still ached from the wrenching, and I did not say “I love you.”

Once the room was quiet, Tyler and Calla came back in. Tyler stroked my head and wiped my tears, and we laughed a little at the absurdity of our trip so far without having to say any of it out loud. The administrator left, the doctor went to get me a sling, and the nurse came back into the room holding the plastic stick.

“Congratulations,” she said. “I do think you’re pregnant.”

By Cornwall, I had not gotten my period, but Tyler, like Henry the VIII, had gotten gout in his foot. He drank little alcohol and rarely ate red meat or any of the other foods meant to bring on the epicure’s disease, but his big toe swelled up purple and was so painful, a bedsheet couldn’t rest on it. A shoe was no longer a possibility. Within a few days, we were at the clinic in town, getting him medicine and crutches. There were miles of cliff walks on the coast of Cornwall that we had come for. Now Tyler couldn’t walk them, and I couldn’t push Calla’s stroller with my arm in a sling, so I went to the sea alone.

Illustration: Calla King-Clements for Human Parts

We went to a restaurant for lunch. When we walked in, Calla shot out ahead of us. Every head looked up as we tried to catch up, me in my sling and Tyler on his crutches.

In the bathroom, an older woman said to me, “Have you been in the wars?”

I bought a pregnancy test on the way back to London in a town called Abbott-Newton. I peed on the stick in the bathroom of a teahouse and put it in my bag. A few minutes later, at the little table, we looked at it together. Two strong, thick lines. Tyler and I cried and hugged Calla. She was flushed, and I knew she was coming down with something, but she laughed and made her bunny dance for the people next to us. And after our tea, we hobbled back to our rented car and started waiting for her baby sister to come join the wars.

Lily King is the author of five novels, including Euphoria and Writers & Lovers. She lives with her family and dogs in Maine.

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