Children of the world, don’t believe your parents, your shrinks, or your imaginary friends: worst nightmares sometimes do come true. Sure, many humans can get through their entire lives without falling out of an airplane, having a leg eaten off by a shark, being kidnapped by a tiny car full of saber-toothed circus clowns, or being awoken at 2 a.m. by a group of drug-crazed hippies wielding ice picks and chanting “Kill the pig, acid is groovy.” But some don’t. We all have these fears and they are perfectly rational, so watch out.
Of course, not all worst nightmares involve violence. Take one of mine, for example. As an insulin-dependent type 1 diabetic who must constantly keep tabs on his blood sugar level to make sure it doesn’t go too low, I have always had a terrible fear of being stuck somewhere—locked in a closet, stranded on a desert island, accidentally buried alive—with a plummeting blood sugar and no sugary food that will raise my level back to normal. If this were to ever happen, my glucose level would keep sinking and I would morph into a weak, sweaty, and stupid insulin zombie. My synapses would stop synapting, I’d be unable to verbalize anything beyond a frustrated yelp (and there’d be no one around to hear me anyway), and my body would eventually just power down until I was merely a puddle of skin on the floor/sand/coffin bed. Doesn’t that sound terrible?
Sure it does, but at least that one would eventually end in death and all the misery would be over. Sadder still is a worst-nightmare situation that is horrible but not horrible enough to kill you, just terrible enough to scare the shit out of you and then not have the decency to go away. Stay with me, now.
See, I play the viola—have for many years. And when I play a song well, it is one of life’s pure joys. That said, just because I’ve played for many years doesn’t mean I’m a virtuoso. Though I started with the violin when I was six, I studied the Suzuki method, which emphasizes ear training over sight-reading of music, so, though I played in orchestras and band camps as a kid, I could never sit down in front of a piece of music and know exactly what it should sound like by just looking at the notes on the page. When I was on my own I was more likely to just take up the instrument and pick out whatever song was in my pop radio-addled head, be it “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Herbie Hancock’s “Axle F,” or the Chariots of Fire theme. In eighth grade I put the instrument down for a couple years before picking it back up as a form of therapy—because nothing warms a teenage heart like coming up with a violin part to, say, “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” by the Smiths, or playing along to “Ocean Rain” by Echo and his Bunnymen.
I’ve since grown up (sort of) and switched to viola, but I’ve never outgrown my love of playing pop songs on a fiddle-type-thing. I’ve played in a few bands here and there, have played for family funerals and friends’ weddings and such, and periodically make a few extra dollars busking on the NYC subway. But I’m obviously not a professional musician, so my main reason for continuing to play, beyond just basic enjoyment, remains therapeutic in nature—I’m not a person prone to easy relaxation, and getting out my viola and exorcising some demons via Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” or Kermit the Frog’s “The Rainbow Connection” is the closest thing to a Zen experience I’ve ever had. And I’d always privately thought, with a shudder, how godawful it would be to somehow be prevented from having this outlet in my life.
So, on that note, let’s take a ride on my bike on the streets of New York City so we can hurry up and get to the nightmare part.
It was a beautiful spring day last April, and I was on my bike heading to the office with not a care in the world. Well, only one care: my band, a three-piece piano, viola, and guitar combo called simpleshapes that was getting ready to split, had our last show in four days, and I wanted to make it count. So I was a little preoccupied with that, but otherwise, birds were singing, the sun was shining, a cool breeze was blowing, and oh shit, look at that big f-ing truck at the intersection!
The big f-ing truck in the left-turn lane at Allen Street and Houston was blocking the bike lane, so I waited behind it until it got the turn signal, at which point it started moving and veering left. I rolled forward and, looking behind me to make sure there were no oncoming bikers or cars ready to overtake me, I started to pivot back into the bike lane. I whipped my head back around and, wouldn’t you know it, the big f-ing truck had stopped in the middle of the street, and right in front of me. I had no time to react and plowed right into the back of it.
Amazingly, I didn’t wipeout. I basically slammed into the back of the truck, my left handle bar and left hand bearing the brunt of the impact, then quickly I was back on my feet, straddling my bike. So I quickly spirited myself and my bike to the other side of Houston to get away from the countless vehicles just waiting to gangbang me. When I got safely to the sidewalk on the other side of Houston, I looked down at what I assumed would be a handsome and tough-looking scrape on my left hand. What was there instead, on my left index finger, was a dangling fingertip that looked as if it had been popped off like a bottle cap. My left hand was now a fountain of blood. It was so awkward.
There wasn’t a big accident scene—the truck I slammed into was so big the driver didn’t even know it had happened, so he continued turning left and happily moved on with his life. So there I was with a blood opera on my hands and no audience to give me a standing ovation. Sure, there were some passersby, but New Yorkers are pretty good at ignoring random bleeding hobos on the street, and it’s probable that no passersby even realized the tragedy unfolding before them. For all they knew I was some crazy person who’d bitten his own finger off, which happens all the time on the Lower East Side.
With my right hand I fished my phone out of my pocket and dialed 911, while pacing back and forth and trying not to panic because holy shit my finger looks like it was attacked by wolves!
A few injections and painkillers later I was numb as the dickens. Loopy and temporarily carefree while waiting to be stitched, I of course took my phone out with my good hand and snapped a few pictures of the bleeding, disfigured finger for posterity. Perhaps I could send them to Fangoria or something, impress some teenagers.
It was while I was devoid of any sensation whatsoever in my brutalized finger that the reality of what had happened dawned on me. I was left-handed, which was fine because who writes with their hand anymore? But I also used the fingers of my left hand to hit the notes on the fingerboard of my viola. In its current state, my left index finger would be able to do no such fanciful thing. It would be a coup if I could get it to once again regain a vaguely finger-like shape. It was then that I knew I was in worst nightmare territory.
Like any natural pessimist I’d considered this possibility before, of course: some disaster befalling me–rat attack, scissor mishap, lawnmower accident–and making it impossible for me to pick up my viola and play a spirited rendition of “Top of the World” by the Carpenters whenever I damn well pleased. But I’d always trusted that, if you did in fact constantly consider the possibility of something terrible happening, that automatically made the likelihood of it more remote. That’s just basic metaphysics. Keep bad thoughts in your head at all times and nothing bad will happen. It’s the surprise attack that’ll get you.
That theory was flawed, it turns out, because there will always be moments in your day, regardless of your obsessive vigilance, when you somehow stop thinking bad thoughts. You just can’t possibly stay negative all the time. There will be flashes of wonder and happiness sometimes–like, say, those you gleefully experience during a beautiful bike ride on an early spring day–that will leave you unguarded and completely defenseless, just in time for the jaws of life to come barreling in to bite your fingertip off.
Soon enough the hand specialist came in to give me the bad news: I had a diagonal bone fracture in the tip of the finger. The nail had been completely torn from the nail bed and may not grow back. Here, have some more painkillers.
I asked the doctor when I’d be able to play my viola again and he almost laughed at me.
“You won’t be playing it for… a while,” he said.
They stitched me up, bandaged me, gave me a splint that looked like a tiny Mary Jane shoe, and sent me on my way. Immediately when I got home I sank into the couch and watched a full season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race start to finish in order to drown my sorrows in low-rent backstabbing and brio. The next day I pulled out my viola with a heavy heart and started trying to pick out my band’s songs using only my three available fingers, keeping my splinted finger pointing upwards and out of the way. I sounded like a five-year-old who had just picked up the instrument for the first time and who also was deaf. But I kept at it, hour after hour, forcing my three working fingers into positions they were unused to and deeply unhappy with. After a few days of painstaking and eardrum-shredding practice, I was able to, more or less, play my band’s set without completely cringing at the sounds I was making. But would I be able to do this live?
The answer was: yes, sort of, with some exceptions. I’d successfully taught myself how to play the songs—more or less, often less—with three fingers, but it was not an enjoyable way to play, it was inelegant, it was sometimes out of tune, and I hated its stupid face. (Click here to hear a song from the show, at the Rock Shop in Brooklyn.)
I continued going to the Bellevue hand clinic for follow-up x-rays, but the results, week after week, month after month, were always the same: the fracture was not growing back together, contrary to what they were expecting it to do. My finger remained a bloated mini-sea cucumber. Thankfully, the nail had taken root and was starting to grow back, which would start to give the fingertip some stability, eventually. But it looked like my finger would be permanently gimpy. The good news: my physical therapist suggested I start using the finger when playing music as part of my therapy.
Cut to: montage, in which I sit on the couch in gym shorts and with peanut butter in my beard, stare bitterly at my viola case in the corner, then stand up, start playing, start weeping, sniff some glue, play again, yell at my cat, yell at my gimpy finger, huff some paint thinner, play again (a little better this time), do a beer bong, smoke some opium, wake up in an alley, get sober, play again (an identifiable version of “Moon River”), go for a jog, get lost, stand on a subway platform resentfully listening to a flawless violin player tearing a Brahms sonata a new a##hole, go for a swim at the Y, get home, have a staring contest with the viola, lose, pick it up and force it to sing “Where the Boys Are,” wipe the perspiration from my brow with my Loverboy sweatband, then play a triumphantly passable rendition of “I Feel Pretty” at (the) Lincoln Center (subway station).
Now, after six months, I can actually use the old gimp finger to play. It’s stiff, it’s swollen, it’s awkward, I can’t bend it fully, and it’s a bitch to move quickly. (Also, if I have an itch, I may as well scratch it with a pickle.) But I can, in the broadest sense, play the viola again. It is my goal to once more luxuriate in that Zen place I sometimes used to reach, fleetingly, for minutes at a time. I’ll get there. Which will be good for everyone, because the viola version of Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer” and John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” aren’t going to play themselves in the subway station on 14th and 6th.
The moral of the story, for the children? If your worst nightmare ever comes true—and you survive—don’t completely lose heart. You might just realize, after all the blood and sadness, that everything is cool, you’re just going to have a weird puffy sausage finger for the rest of your life. And you can live with that, so shut up and let’s hear that great arrangement of “Chiquitita” you’ve picked out, because it’s just darling.