Doing It All Over Again
I was feeling stressed that day. That was why I said what I did to the old man. In retrospect it was perhaps the wisest thing I have ever said in my life.
I picked him up at a convalescent home in suburban Spokane; a withered, emaciated ninety year old. His race was indeterminable, he was so withered by time but his name on the bank of paperwork the con home staff had given me identified him as so li, which, I was reasonably sure, made him Chinese. He was suffering from cancer, not just to one particular body part but throughout his entire body.
I took one look at him and knew he wasn’t long for this world. His breathing was ragged and irregular, his skin pale and feverish. His body probably weighed about 75 pounds if he was lucky. There was absolutely no muscle in evidence upon his bones and his flesh hung loosely from every extremity. Despite all of this he was mentally quite aware of his surroundings, something else I recognized almost immediately.
“How are you doing, Mr. Li?” I asked him, bending over his form on the hospital bed.
“Can’t…” he puffed softly, “… Breathe.”
I nodded, taking the stethoscope out of the leg pocket of my jumpsuit and putting it in my ears. I listened to his lungs, hearing nothing but bad news. He was barely moving any air at all. I had been a paramedic for eight years but even a newbie could have seen that Mr. Li’s survival on the trip to the hospital was in question. He needed a breathing tube placed in his lungs to help him.
The nurse (And I use that term loosely) was the epitome of white trash. Bleach blonde, sixty or so pounds overweight, and chewing a large wad of bubble gum as she peered at us. She’d placed a facemask on him but had only turned the flow to two liters per minute. The effect of this was to give him less oxygen than was available in the atmosphere, since the mask was a closed system. Business as usual in the con home. My partner, without being asked, switched the supply tubing to our portable tank and cranked it up to fifteen liters per minute. This helped Mr. Li a little, but not much.
“He needs to be intubated,” I said to no one in particular, referring to the placement of a breathing tube.
“No, no, no!” the nurse yelled, startling me. “He’s a DNR! You can’t put a tube in!”
Mr. Li gave her a contemptuous glance and I grabbed her arm and pulled her out into the hall. DNR stood for ‘do not resuscitate’, a physician order, commonly given to people like Mr. Li, ordering paramedics and hospital personnel not to use advanced life support measures to save their life. After all, what would be the point of bringing Mr. Li back from the dead only so he could continue to die of cancer? But she could have found a more tactful way of informing me of this fact.
“Do you have a copy of the DNR?” I asked her pointedly.
She dug through the file she had for a moment and then produced the form. I looked at it, making sure it was legal. Patient’s name, the words DNR or no code, and the doctor’s signature were all present. “Okay,” I said, handing it back. “You might consider working on your tact a little in the future,” I advised her.“Mr. Li can hear everything you say.”
She scoffed at this, giving me a condescending look. “He’s a gork,” she told me, using medical slang for an unresponsive person, or vegetable. “And a gook on top of that. What’s the big deal?”
I turned away from her in disgust. As hardened as I had become doing this job, it never failed to amaze me how crass, incompetent, and tactless con home nurses could be. It was one of those situations where you had to figure that if they were any good at what they did, they wouldn’t be working there.
I returned to my patient and looked at him. His breathing, temporarily relieved by the oxygen increase was now worsening once again.“Mr. Li?” I asked him, speaking loudly in case he was hard of hearing. “I have a doctor’s order not to assist your breathing mechanically. Do you understand?”
Looking in my eyes, he nodded his understanding.
“Is that your wish, sir?” I asked him. “For me not to do anything?”
He smiled slightly. “Yes,” he panted. “It’s…” a pause to breathe, “… My time.”
“As you wish,” I told him.
We loaded him onto our gurney and wheeled him out to the ambulance. Once in the back I hooked him up to my EKG machine in order to allow me to watch his heart rate. I put my pulse oximeter on his finger, looking at the display for a reading. The pulse oximeter registered the amount of oxygen saturation in a person’s blood. A normal reading for a person breathing room air was around 99%. Mr. Li was breathing one hundred percent oxygen and his reading was 74%. Yes, he was dying fast.
“Mr. Li?” I addressed him. His eyes creaked open to look at me.
“I am going to start an iv on you,” I told him. “Maybe they can give you something at the hospital to, you know, help you with the pain and the discomfort.”
He smiled, nodding at me.
I went to work, setting up a bag of saline and hanging it from a hook on the ceiling of the ambulance. His veins were so fragile I was forced to use the smallest needle we carried, the kind that is meant to be used on infants, in order to establish the line. I threaded it in slowly, cognizant of the fact that advancing it at this rate was probably painful for him.
“I am sorry, Mr. Li,” I told him when I finally secured the line. “I don’t like to do it that slow but your veins are not in the best shape. It is better to do it that way than to miss it and have to try again.”
“Thank…” a pause, “… You.”
While I adjusted the drip rate I noticed him staring at me, a queer smile on his face. He took a few deep breaths, as if he was storing up oxygen, and then started to speak.
“You’re a… Good boy,” he said, panting. “You treat me… With… Respect… Where… Others don’t.”
“I am just doing my job,” I told him, returning his smile.
He shook his head. “Been taken… Before,” he said. “Not all… Like you. Not at… All.”
“Well,” I shrugged, “I try.”
“What…” he asked, “Is your… Greatest… Wish?”
“My greatest wish?” I asked, Raising my eyebrows. He nodded.
I laughed, thinking of my life. I was a thirty-two year old private paramedic who had been doing the job too long. I wasn’t a dirt bag by any means but I wasn’t at the pinnacle of success either. My job was constantly in jeopardy of being taken away by the Spokane fire department, who were just itching to get into the ambulance business. Like many fire departments around the country, they had initiated so many fire codes and regulations over the years that they no longer had any fires to put out. They knew it wouldn’t be long before the tax-payers started wondering just what they were paying these guys for anyway and, as such, their mission for the next century it seemed, was a take-over of the medical aid business. Private ambulance companies, who didn’t have the political clout or the hero reputation to exploit, had already fallen to them in cities and counties all around the United States. It was a nationwide trend. Spokane FD had already tried twice, getting voted down by the city council once and then, having the same body approve them later, they were stopped by a superior court judge’s restraining order. At my age, I was too old to get picked up by them when they were eventually successful and I didn’t know how to do anything else. I had an ex-wife and an ex-kid to pay money to each month. In short, I was in a rut I saw no way out of and had been dwelling on that, as I am prone to doing, that shift. For that reason I answered Mr. Li the way I did.
“I had like to be fifteen years old again,” I told him truthfully, “Knowing what I know now. How about you, Mr. Li?”
He smiled, not answering my question. He simply said, “Not bad,” and then his eyes closed.
His breathing became rapid for a moment and then ceased entirely. I looked at him in alarm, knowing I could do something about it but forbidden to by a doctor’s order. I had encountered this situation before in my career but it was never easy. I watched the heart monitor after his breathing ceased. His heart rate accelerated to more than 160 for a few moments and then began to slow down. It slowed to less than twenty and then ceased entirely, leaving a squiggly line tracing across my EKG machine. The squiggles soon turned to a flat line. Mr. Li was dead.
I finished out my shift, not thinking too much about Mr. Li once I had dropped him off at the hospital. I ran a few more calls, ate dinner from a greasy fast-food joint, and then went home to my cheap apartment in south Spokane. Once at home I drank a few beers while I watched a movie on HBO. I then put myself to bed, falling asleep and anticipating another twelve-hour shift the following day.
Music woke me up; the blaring of my clock radio. The song was “Heat of the moment” by Asia. That was strange, I realized immediately. My clock radio was always tuned to a modern music station, the sort that played Matchbox 20, Alanis, Goo Goo dolls, and other contemporary musicians. I hadn’t heard “Heat of the moment” in years, since I was a kid. I didn’t remember tuning the radio to a classic rock station and, since I lived alone, no one else could have done so. I opened my eyes and froze solid in my tracks.
I was not in my bedroom; at least not the apartment bedroom I was familiar with. This was the bedroom of my parent’s house in west Spokane, but at the same time, it wasn’t. I had visited them just the previous week and I knew damn well that my old bedroom had long since been converted to a guest bedroom, complete with new carpet, new bed, and new wallpaper. This room was set up just like it had been when I had lived there; wood-grain paneling on the walls (My parent’s had done that back in the 70’s), posters of rock musicians on the paneling. My old stereo, 8-track player was sitting on a shelf near a black and white television set. Dirty laundry was scattered everywhere along with record album covers (Van Halen, Journey, Led Zeppelin) and other debris. I stared at this, wide-eyed.
Was I dreaming? I must be, I figured. But it sure didn’t feel like a dream. I sat up suddenly and realized that I felt physically very strong and energetic. There was no ache in my lower back like usual. There was no congestion in the back of my throat from too many cigarettes. There was no faint headache from the beer I had drank last night. I even, I realized, had a morning hard-on, something I rarely experienced anymore. I turned my eyes downward, taking in a sharp intake of breath. My chest, bare as always when I slept, was hairless, as if it had been shaven smooth. My stomach was flat, without a trace of the beer-belly I had begun to develop. What in the hell was going on here?
I pulled myself out of bed, feeling almost high with youthful energy that I had long since forgotten about. Behind my bed was a mirror with the emblem of Aerosmith etched on it. I had won it, I remembered, at the county fair when I was thirteen (Nineteen years ago! Part of my mind screamed). I looked into it. Instead of a face with a scruffy growth of beard and bleary red eyes I saw a smooth, unlined face with a tangled mess of long hair atop it. I barely recognized the face before me. It was me when I was a teenager.
I stared at myself (And yet not myself) in this mirror, transfixed. What the hell was going on here? I was not dreaming, I could not even begin to convince myself that I was. Reality was too firm around me, too detailed. With a start, I remembered the old Chinese man last night. What is your greatest wish? He’d asked and I had told him to be fifteen again, knowing what I know now. Well I was looking at a fifteen year old’s face in the mirror right now. But that was crazy, impossible. Wishes weren’t granted. Time travel wasn’t possible.
A pounding on the door made me jump nearly to the ceiling.
“Bill?” came my mother’s voice. “Are you up? C’mon, you gotta get ready for school.”
School? “Oh my god,” I muttered, staring at the door.
“Bill?” the door creaked open, revealing my mother, only not as I had seen her the previous week, but as I had last seen her about seventeen years ago. Her blonde hair had not a trace of gray in it, her face without a wrinkle. She was about thirty pounds overweight, a period she’d gone through, I remembered, when I was an adolescent. Later she would shed all of those extra pounds. Her eyes locked onto me and I realized I was standing in the middle of the room in my underwear.
“Bill? What are you doing?” she asked, looking at me suspiciously, her mind no doubt thinking about drugs.
“Uh…” I stared back, my mind whirring, “Uh… Nothing, mom. Just trying to, uh, wake up.”
This seemed to ease her mind a little. “Oh,” she said. “Well, hurry up or you’re gonna be late for school. Tracy’s out of the shower now.”
“Tracy?” I said, surprised. “You mean, Tracy, my sister?”
The look she gave me would have been funny under different circumstances. “Yes,” she said carefully, her eyes telling me she was worrying about drugs
Again. “How many Tracy’s live in the house, bill?”
“Sorry,” I said numbly, full of elation. “Still trying to wake up I guess.”
She nodded doubtfully and then, with a last worried glare, shut the door.
Tracy! I thought in disbelief. Tracy my older sister. She’d been killed on the night of her high school graduation when the car she’d been riding in, piloted by a drunken college student had plunged into the Spokane River. Tracy, along with one other teenaged girl, had drowned before she could pull herself out of the submerged car. Tracy was alive!
I sat back down on my bed, my mind now well into overload status. Part of me was refusing to believe what my sensory inputs were telling me; that I was a teenager in the early 80’s instead of a 32 year-old, burned-out paramedic in the late 90’s, that my mother was in her mid-thirties now, that my dead sister had just gotten out of the shower, leaving it free for me instead of resting, decomposed, in a sealed coffin in river view cemetery. But the cool, logical part of me was forced to accept the circumstances. I was a teenager again. Would I now have to live through the next seventeen years all over? Could I change things? Was I trapped here now? There were so many ramifications I had to consider. What about Becky, my four year old daughter? What about her? She didn’t exist yet. If I was able to change things, and I did so, Becky might never live. This was deep, very deep shit.
I was still sitting there thinking when my door burst open again, revealing my father. Like my mother, dad looked considerably younger than I was used to. He was dressed in slacks and a sweater, obviously on his way to Milton junior high school where he had (Did, my mind corrected) taught eighth grade English and physical education. He stared me up and down, probably advised to check on me by my worried mother (Mom had always worried about me being on drugs, I remembered).
“Are you planning to go to school today?” he asked me after a moment.
I stared back at him for a moment. It was strange. I was unable to take parental authority seriously, so long had I been without it, but my father didn’t realize this. Finally I responded. “Yes, dad,” I told him. “Just heading for the shower now.”
He nodded, seemed about to say something and then decided not to. He closed the door.
I dug through my dresser, pulling out some clothes, marveling over my high school tastes. It seemed I had nothing to wear but 501 jeans and sweaters or t-shirts with rock band emblems printed on them. What was the weather like? I wondered. Was it summer, spring, autumn, or winter? Should I wear the rock band t-shirt or the rock band sweater? A glance outside informed me that it was winter. There was snow on the ground and angry gray clouds drifting overhead. I found a robe (My old red robe!) In my closet and pulled it over my body, opening my door and heading for the bathroom to shower.
As I passed my sister’s room I looked in and there she was. Seventeen years old or so, wearing a pair of wranglers and a fashionable sweater. She sat before her mirror, combing her wet hair with a brush. She gave me a disinterested glance and started to turn back to the mirror but paused when she noticed me staring at her.
“What’s your problem, dickhead?” she asked me, her voice filled with the sibling contempt that had marked our teenaged years. Contempt I had always felt sorry for after her death.
She looked downright hostile now as I stepped forward and threw my arms around her, hugging her to me. Her body stiffened in alarm and confusion as I did this.
“What the fuck is your problem, asshole?” she barked, pushing me away.
There were actually tears in my eyes, I was so glad to see her again. I found myself speechless for a moment.
She looked at my face, disgust evident in her eyes. “You’re crying? What kind of sick shit is this? Get the fuck out of my room, dickhead.”
“Tracy,” I told her seriously, “You and I are gonna have to sit down and have a talk together.”
“What?” she asked, amazed.
“Later,” I told her. Then I asked, “What’s the date today?”
“The date?” I repeated. “You know? Month, day…” I paused. “Year?”
She gaped at me, not answering.
“I am serious, trace,” I told her. “I will explain later. What’s the date?”
“February 18,” she said finally. “Wednesday.”
I licked my lips for a moment. “And the year?”
“What do you…”
“Just tell me the damn year, Tracy!” I commanded, making her jump.
“1982,” she said finally. “Why the hell would you ask that?”
I did some quick mental addition. I was born February 10, 1967. That made me fifteen years old, but with the wisdom (Such as it was) of a 32 year old who had already lived through the future. Tracy was indeed seventeen. She would graduate in June of 1983 and be killed later that night. That gave me a year and a half to save her life. I vowed that, if nothing else changed, I would change that. I would shoot the drunken college student dead before I allowed him to drive my sister around.
“Never mind,” I told her. “I will probably explain it to you later. It is good to see you Tracy. I love you.”
“Get the fuck out of here, you fuckin’ pervert!” she screamed.
“And you love me too,” I commented as I exited her room and headed for the shower.
By the time my shower was complete my mind had accepted the facts of the matter. I was fifteen again, it was 1982, and I had the next seventeen years to do over again. What should I do? What would I change? How many past mistakes could I rectify? Could I tell anyone? Would they believe me? And what about Becky? My future daughter preyed on my mind. Was it already too late to have her? I certainly couldn’t go through another two years of marriage with that bitch that was her mother again. Could i?
Putting thoughts of Becky aside, I was cheery as I entered the kitchen and sat down to a bowl of cereal at the kitchen table. Tracy was already there, eyeing me suspiciously but saying nothing. My father, as had been his habit, was eating an English muffin and reading the newspaper. A quick glance assured me that the date Tracy had provided was indeed correct. I looked at the headlines printed on the back of the paper.
Scientists say alignment of planets presents no danger, read one. Oh yeah. The planets were all scheduled to align this year, which had prompted many to predict that the combined gravitational pull would rip up apart or cause earthquakes or some other such nonsense. Nothing had happened, obviously. AT&T break-up leaves many wondering, what next? Read another. I smiled, thinking I could tell them a thing or two about what was next. Reaganomics working, proclaim economists, another declared. And it would continue to for another two years or so until the entire economy came to a crashing halt, signaling the beginning of the next depression, or recession, as it would be termed.
I finished up my breakfast and found, after some searching, my backpack which contained all of my schoolbooks and papers. If my fifteen-year-old self was true to form, I knew my homework wouldn’t be done and my assignments wouldn’t be read. That was something I would have to rectify, I figured. One of the things I regretted later in life were my poor high school grades and study habits, which precluded me from getting into a top-rated college. How hard could the work possibly be now?
A knock on the door signaled the arrival of Mike Meachen, my best friend back in high school. Mike was a year older than I and had always been the dominant member of our friendship. From Mike I learned how to smoke marijuana, how to drink beer, how to smoke cigarettes, how to cut school. Mike would drop out in the eleventh grade and work a few menial jobs for a few years before taking his GED and joining the air force where he was eventually dishonorably discharged for marijuana use. I hadn’t talked to him in years but the last I had heard he was still living with his parents. Could I steer Mike onto a different path? I wondered as I went to the door and bade my family farewell.
Though I was expecting it, it was still startling to see him as a sixteen-year-old again.
“Sup?” he muttered to me, his version of ‘what’s up?’
“Not much,” I told him, careful to give no hint of the startling change in me just yet. I closed the door behind me and we started the two-mile walk to our high school.
I was surprised at the immaturity of his conversation as we trodded to school. It centered on his phony sexual exploits with girls I had never met, which girls at our school he’d like to fuck, and other adolescent posturing. I had to remind myself that my conversation back then had been pretty much the same and that I now had seventeen years of maturity over him. I nodded and responded to his statements with appropriateness. He noticed no change in me. I had always been quiet anyway.
As we got close to the school feelings of unreality washed over me again. I was seeing people I hadn’t seen in years. But I was seeing them as they were then, not as my mind was telling me they should look now (I had to keep reminding myself that now was then). They were in ones, two, and even groups of six or more, heading for school. Boys and girls both. I saw Steve Johan, who would join the army after graduation and be killed in a helicopter crash. I saw Nina Blackmore, a skinny, nerdish, friendless girl who would go to medical school and work as an emergency room doctor at Spokane’s trauma center. She would also acquire good looks early in college as her body filled out and eventually marry a rich neurosurgeon. I saw Carrie Founder, one of the best looking girls in the school giggling with some of the other elite. Carrie I knew, would marry a loser and pump out four kids before divorcing. During that period she would put on nearly a hundred pounds. Eventually, she would end up living in a trailer park with some other white-trash loser. As I paramedic I would one day pick her up for overdosing on anti-depressant medicines and pretend I didn’t know her. I saw lots of others I hadn’t thought of in years and others who’s faces I recognized but who’s names I could not come up with.
I would be lying if I said that my attention was not distracted by the girls. Like many men there was a special place in the part of my mind that controlled lust that was obsessed with the idea of a teenager. It was no doubt because they were forbidden. It was something I had never done or attempted to do before, knowing that the risks were not worth the benefits. But, a horny part of my mind asked me, things were different now, weren’t they? I was a teenager now! I could do it legally!
I had been shy back in high school, a phase I had gotten over later in life. But as a result of this shyness, I did not manage to get myself laid for the first time until I was a senior in high school (And to be honest, it was late in the year at that). But I wasn’t shy now, was i? My eyes began tracking through the crowds, taking in the lean forms of the fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen year old girls, their tight asses, their firm breasts. I began to imagine the possibilities and my fifteen-year-old dick began to stir in my 501s. Although I intended to do as much good with the gift I had been given-there were so many things I could change or prevent now that I had pre-knowledge of it-it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a little fun, would it? Of course not.
My musings were interrupted by Mike. As we came to the front of the school he jerked my arm, pulling me backward. “We’d better go around the other side,” he said, alarmed. “Richard fuckface and his asshole friends are standing over there.”
I looked where he was indicating and saw a real blast from the past. Richard Fairview was one of many bullies at our high school. He was about six feet tall and about as dumb as a person could get while still remembering to draw breathe every couple of seconds. He’d been one of the terrors of our school, his scam, when he wasn’t beating people’s ass for the fun of it, to post himself at an entry point and rip off lunch money from arriving kids dumb enough to approach him. As always he had five or six companions lounging there with him. They were all smoking cigarettes and eyeing the approaching throngs, looking for targets. I had had my ass beaten by him a time or two. I wondered if that had happened yet, unable to place just when those occurrences had taken place.
A smile formed on my face. In the ensuing seventeen years I had learned a lot both about psychology and physical combat. Bullies, I knew, relied mostly on the complacency of their victims. They relied on their size and intimidation to get what they wanted. Very few of them actually knew how to fight. I, however, had worked for at a job where physical assault by one’s patients or one’s patient’s family members was an almost daily happening. Though somewhat of a wimp in high school, life had taught me a thing or two about hand to hand fighting. The most important thing I had learned was that, while getting hit by a fist was painful, it wasn’t that painful.