Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Hot Summer of Benjy

As published in Teen Cancer America's Calling Out Cancer

My older brother JD burst through the front door at 11 p.m. carrying three cardboard boxes, the exterior shells to heaven on my tongue. He said the large one held a 14-inch Domino’s Hawaiian pizza, and the elongated ones held cheesy bread and hot wings.

Perfect timing. I’d tired of watching fireflies and playing Donkey Kong 64 on this summer night in 2000, between my sophomore and junior years of high school. I’d even felt ready for bed, but stayed up extra minute after extra minute in hopes my delivery-driver brother would make my wish come true.

Late-night pizza was as much my fantasy as alone time with Britney Spears. Or perhaps the pizza held a higher ranking because I knew how to eat pizza but didn’t know how to converse with girls.

JD hadn’t paid for this dream to come true. He said this food was from the collection of pizzas and sides not fit for customers, and thus free for him and other employees. That food had burned in the oven or their pineapple bits weren’t spaced perfectly or they were manhandled being put into the boxes. That’s what he said. I knew the truth, though. This glory now sitting on our wobbly kitchen table in Manassas, Virginia, stemmed from a clause in his employment contract that read, “You may mishandle food at a frequency greater than never yet less than often and then deliver it to your younger brother.”

I ran upstairs ...keep reading The Hot Summer of Benjy

Leia Mais…

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Getting Beyond the Blah

As published in GatherDC

“What would constitute a perfect day for you?”

That’s the question I pulled from the mason jar holding 86 such questions, each written on a mini sticky note and then folded over. I named my creation Beyond the Blah Jar.

My new girlfriend Anie had to answer per the rules of Beyond the Blah Jar. She was sitting next to me on the couch, on the middle cushion. We were tired, approaching the end of our March weekend together, but she didn’t hesitate responding. “Today!”

Today, a day she’d spent entirely in my presence, was my new girlfriend’s perfect day? I forced my lips to remain within the boundaries of my face.

We began the day with scrambled eggs and coffee with heavy cream (for me, tea for her). That sated us before we hiked around Claude Moore Park in Sterling, Virginia, and then drank India pale ales at Lake Anne Brew House. Anie’s perfect day was now ending with me, dinner, a movie, and Beyond the Blah Jar.

“Oh wait,” Anie added. Her face held an “aha” expression. “I thought the question asked for a recent perfect day. Did it mean what is my ideal perfect day?” Keep reading Getting Beyond the Blah...

A Recent Social Media Post


Leia Mais…

Friday, June 7, 2019

(Maybe) I Got Bit by a Snake

I saw my hand by the morning light streaming through my blinds and felt like I was looking at something that wasn’t a part of me. A crimson, half-inch lesion rose above the right side of my right hand like Mary’s Rock. Swelling puffed up the skin like a balloon, leaving me with one apparent knuckle. I flipped my arm over. Red streaks crawled up it like fingers stretching to grasp my heart.

My instinct was to call my dermatologist. “Good morning, I’d like to schedule an appointment.”

“If this is for body sculpting, I’ll transfer you to that receptionist.”

Nope. I rapid-fired my problem: yesterday afternoon, I said, I noticed what I thought was a mosquito bite on my hand. I didn’t think anything of it. In the middle of the night, I woke to pee and felt itchiness, swelling, and that the inflammation around the bite had expanded. I didn’t want to turn the light on because studies show that makes it harder to fall back asleep, so I just slept with an ice pack on my hand. Then I woke for real. Then I described my not-my-hand.

My dermatologist had an opening at 11:40 the following morning.

I looked at not-my-hand again. I’d become a patient user of medical services, a confidence stemming from years of health and a rockstar teenage immune system. This seemed more urgent, but maybe I could go to work and hold off 28 hours before taking action on my hand. Basically, I didn’t know what to do about skin things when the skin guy wasn’t available. “What would you do?”

“Go to urgent care. Like, now.”

I emailed my supervisor requesting pre-approved sick leave for an unknown period of time and drove to the urgent care. The doc there looked at my not-hand and arm, on which the red streaks looked like they had grown since half an hour earlier. She said it looked like a bite, though not from a mosquito. She couldn’t help me, and I needed to go to the ER to probably get IV antibiotics. Like, now. She called the ER to inform the staff I was coming.

Fear engulfed me on my drive to the hospital. I remembered a TED Talk portraying a future in which people die from mere scrapes—and maybe not-mosquito bites?—because antibiotics may no longer work. I remembered my dad nearly dying from pneumonia because medicines weren’t killing the bacteria until it was almost too late. Whatever infection was spreading through my lymphatic system, I wasn’t certain I’d survive with all limbs intact or at all. I realized how similar illnesses can be: a malignant tumor and bacterial infection both require treatment with no guarantee they’ll work, and all you can do is hope. The difference for me was when I was 16 and 19, I knew chemotherapy and radiation would kill my cancers; at 35, I lacked that same certainty regarding treatment for my bite.

The hospital staff registered and roomed me quickly. The ER doctor entered to see about my bite. “Gross, look at that thing!” he said, jumping back. “I don’t mess with spiders. Can’t stand them. I don’t mind insects. Bees. Snakes, even. But spiders? Mmm Mmm, not me.”

“You think it’s a spider bite?”

“I think so. Though I can’t say for sure. It doesn’t look like a bite from a tic. I’ve been seeing more of these emergencies lately, maybe due to global warming. Damn. Look at that gross thing.”


The doctor started telling me about a recent patient of his, and though I wondered if that was breaking some kind of health privacy thingy, I needed to hear this. That patient’s infection from a bite on his leg led to the red fingers spreading all through his leg. He went home on oral antibiotics, but that didn’t take, so he had to be admitted for long-term IV antibiotics.

I made a mental note to email my supervisor again giving her a heads up that I may be requesting extended sick leave if I would have to be admitted. But first, the doctor photographed my bite and infection. He said he would send them to the infectious disease specialist, who would use the photos to decide which antibiotics to prescribe. I figured the doctor took pictures of all his patients’ gnarly not-so-human-looking body parts to show off to his kids.

The infectious disease doc prescribed two powerful IV antibiotics I’d receive in the ER—vancomycin and Rocephin—plus oral Augmentin to take at home for the next two weeks.

I stayed in that room for some five hours as the bacteria killers streamed through my blood system. Mostly I read Searching for Bobby Fischer. Sometimes, I re-investigated my arm. And occasionally, I closed my eyes and visualized the medicine obliterating my disease, a tactic I picked up during treatment for my second cancer, myelodysplasia, sixteen years earlier.

When I left, I felt good about my prospect of not dying and even retaining my arm. While waiting for CVS to fill my Augmentin, I googled spider bites. The images didn’t resemble my bite, which looked like two overlapping bulbs. Then I googled snake bites, and the images of these bites looked more like mine.

At work two days later, I showed my supervisor my bite, which had shrunk in size. The swelling had mostly dissipated, too. Did I get it while I was hiking two days earlier, she said? Who knows, though I had first noticed what I thought was a mosquito bite while at work just sitting at my desk. How could I have gotten bit without noticing it, she said? I must have been so in the zone on a work product. How could a snake have bitten me at work, she said? I was that in the zone. She looked closer. “Nah, that’s definitely a bite from a brown recluse spider.”

I weigh some six million times as much as a brown recluse weighs. I think about that, and then I think: how has any human in history lasted past two days of life without modern medicine, and thus how has our species lasted to this point of actually having modern medicine? Within eight hours, what looked like a mosquito bite transformed into the red fingers of death, and I was helpless to stymie the infection’s progression if not for medicine. I could choose to stay indoors to reduce my likelihood of getting bit again, but I say we share the world with critters and must expect to deal with their talents and powers at least every once in a while. I see you, biter of my right hand, and I accept you, and if you don’t bite me again, that’d be cool.

I’ll never know what bit me. Maybe it was a brown recluse spider. But saying I’ve lived through two cancers and a snake bite sure rolls off the tongue easily.

Some Recent Social Media Posts

Leia Mais…

Monday, January 14, 2019

Words by ruBENstein Quarterly Newsletter - Winter 2019

I published the fifth edition of my quarterly newsletter, Words by ruBENstein. Check it check it check it or subscribe to it! Every three months I'll share: one or two of my recent stories plus an oldie but goodie, my most popular social media post, and one story and life lesson from one of writing's greats.


Leia Mais…