Tom McAllister 2001

Sophomore year, I moved with three friends to an off-campus apartment, because we were tired of sneaking beer into La Salle’s dorms and getting into trouble with the RA (we had already been written up twice and forced to go to alcohol counseling for a semester). We filled a sock drawer with bottles of whiskey and rum, and one roommate brought two pounds of pot, which lasted a couple weeks. Like the college boy stereotypes we were, we maintained a collection of empty bottles in our window sill, which I periodically rotated and dusted to keep them looking fresh. I stood sometimes in the courtyard and admired our bottles from the outside, wondering if passersby ever envied us. My world was so small then. All day, we told stories about how drunk we had been on previous nights, including meticulous counts of which beers we’d had, and how long it had taken us to drink them. Half of these stories were true and half of those we forgot before we finished telling them.

I had begun dating LauraBeth in February, and I still didn’t know how to navigate our relationship. Over the summer, I often borrowed my dad’s minivan to drive to her house in Jersey, and though I’d promised to be home by midnight, I would leave after 1 AM, driving home fast enough that I hoped to somehow make time go in reverse (I also got three speeding tickets in two weeks). She had met my parents and I’d met hers, and we were in all ways an official couple. Still, I was afraid my friends would judge me as a sellout if I was with her too much on campus. The last thing I wanted was to be one of those nauseating college couples that spends every moment together, so that they meld into one unwieldy and insecure non-person. I wouldn’t commit to specific plans with her, and if we ran into each other at the dining hall, I sat at a table far away. I thought about her constantly, but never said so out loud. The last thing I wanted was for people to think I was in love. She was already the most important person in my life, and she is the most important person in this book. I have known her almost as long as I knew my own dad.

I worked Friday nights, taking two buses back home after class for a 5-1 shift at a famous cheesesteak shop, followed by a 10-5 on Saturday morning. I got paid $10 per hour under the table, so every Saturday I returned to campus with $170 in my pocket, making me much richer than my friends with work study jobs. One Friday after classes, she invited me back to her dorm, but I told her I wanted to stop by my apartment instead. We got into what I thought was a lighthearted argument about how I was neglecting her, and she started crying for reasons I was too self-absorbed to understand; I took her tears as a personal affront, and I wanted to do something to reassert my independence. My roommates were standing across the street waiting for me, so I sprinted toward them, planning on tackling one of them, the most masculine thing I could think of. Before I reached him, I slipped in a puddle of oil and sprained my ankle badly enough that I could barely stand. I had sprained my ankle many times playing soccer, and I would do so several more times over the ensuing years, but this one was the worst of them all. After sitting with ice on my ankle for a half hour, I was still in enough pain that I had to call out of work. I should have gone to the hospital, and if I had, maybe I wouldn’t have spent the next fifteen years limping around my house, sometimes afraid to go up the stairs because the pain might be so great that I wouldn’t be able to make it.

Throughout my twenties, I assumed I would just have to live with this pain—inconsistent, but intense enough that it could drop me to my knees. On vacations, we wandered through strange cities on foot, knowing it was possible I would suddenly be rendered immobile. In 2017, a new pain emerged, a steady burning just above the medial bone. Finally, I saw a doctor, assuming I would need surgery and months of painful rehab and then follow-up surgeries. The doctor said my right deltoid ligament was gone completely, replaced by scar tissue. “No wonder it hurts,” he said, pressing on it, making it hurt. But there was no surgery required. After one steroid injection and five weeks of physical therapy, I was pain-free for the first time since college. It was so easy I couldn’t believe it.

After I called out of work the day of the sprain, we decided to throw a party to celebrate my first Friday night ever on campus. We got our beer from a corner store in the neighborhood where nobody checked ID and we had to slide a pile of bills through a slot in bulletproof glass six inches thick. You could get 40-ounce bottles of Olde English for $3.50 each if you were feeling fancy, but you could get Private Stock for $2.50 and Country Club for $2. The cops didn’t care about underage kids buying beer because they had bigger things to worry about in North Philly. The guys playing basketball across the street didn’t care about us either; we were just tourists in their world, and next year we would be replaced by some new kids trying to recreate a Dr. Dre video in their dorms.

I was drunk by five, when my shift would have started. LauraBeth came over before most of the other guests, still upset with me but also concerned about my ankle. I have a picture of her from that night holding a bottle of Olde E, and she’s smiling more comfortably than she does in most pictures from that time. She looks relaxed and happy. Probably she was actually very worried, about my pain, about the noise we were making, about my self-destructiveness, but she’d gotten very good at hiding it already. If you look long enough at a picture, you can see whatever you want.

What happened at the party doesn’t matter. What matters is the ankle, and the damage we do to ourselves because we think it’s funny and we’re too young to care what happens next. You do stupid things and forty years and later your body lives with the consequences, the aching knees and the creaky neck and the damaged heart. Your funny stories become throbbing reminders of your mortality. The ghosts live inside your bad bones.

At one of my final physical therapy appointments, I was rocking on a balance board, training my body to stand correctly, and listening to two elderly women discuss their ailments. The conversation had begun with one woman saying, “You look good,” and the other responding: “I look like yesterday’s meatloaf.” She talked about her physical breakdown, how hard it was to build enough strength to lift her feet over minor obstacles, how she could feel her vertebrae grinding together. “Sometimes I try to explain it and all my words leave me,” she said.

The first woman changed the subject to men, their unreliability and general badness. Her husband had died years ago and she was glad he was dead. Another man at her senior living complex had been rude to her that morning. “So you know me: I gave him two fuck yous. That’s the only way to handle it.” She looked at one of the young female trainers. “If some man gives you trouble, you give him two fuck yous. One is not enough.”

The second woman followed with a story about being young and stuck in traffic with a man she didn’t love. “I was so mad at everyone, and I didn’t know what to do. So I got right up out of that car. I told him fuck you and then I walked up to the intersection. There was a cop on one of those police horses, and I started cursing that horse out on the spot.” She wrapped a resistance band around the arch of her foot and pulled. “That was the last time I ever let a man treat me like that. And I never liked horses anyway.”

What I’m saying is: if I hadn’t slipped in oil back then, maybe I never would have heard this conversation, and what would have been the point of a life without it?

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