That morning in the shower I felt it: an alien nub on my left buttock, just inches from my exit hole on an isthmus of hair that juts into wallet territory. I seized it, taking measure of its girth. When I turned and saw it in the mirror, I shrieked. Staring back at me was a raw pustulant lump, fleshy and pink as a newborn, but with a bulbous head and a translucent, Saturn-like ring.
A boil. An abscess. Whatever you want to call it. A hateful grief pit of pus and blood and dead mucusy tissue that lurks just below the skin’s surface and haunts and abuses you like a small-town sheriff at the end of his last term. Boils have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Every few months one appears in an earlobe, on my neck, or more often in a well-advertised place like the center of my forehead. Some eventually burst and heal on their own. Many more require surgical incision and drainage.
In college, a nurse in the student health service lanced a massive boil in my earlobe, harpooning it with a syringe. Others I’ve managed to lance myself. I once pierced a Cyclopean boil with a sewing needle, a clumsy procedure that left me with a permanent pea-sized dent just below my hairline. Despite all of this, I tried to stay positive with this ass boil, telling myself that as long as I didn’t pick it and kept it clean, it would mend itself. So I gave the boil a light scrubbing with the loofah, turned off the water, and tried not to worry about it.
This was during my second month in Senegal, West Africa, where I was living with my girlfriend Stephanie, a startling, elk-like beauty who had dramatic black eyes, slender arms and legs, and long sinewy brown hair. We’d known each other for years but never carnally, until the previous summer in England, where she was studying international development and I was dabbling in poverty and alcoholism. After a brief, stumbling courtship, we flew into each other like blindfolded sparrows. My chest acquired new muscle definition. My brain felt freshly laundered. After three months it seemed perverse to think of spending a night apart.
Then one day Steph announced she was moving to Senegal, 2,500 miles away, for a new job. We wept and blubbered together for several nights, mourning our lost future, when suddenly she asked me to join her in Senegal. Unhesitatingly, I agreed.
I was 26 and astonishingly ignorant about the world. I imagined life in Senegal as an adventure of unparalleled drama—perilous safaris, bonfire lunches of grilled wildebeest, cocktails at the foreign officers’ club. I even packed Green Hills of Africa, thinking Hemingway’s bush heroics would inspire me. I soon discovered there are no wildebeests in Senegal, and the very notion of a foreign officers’ club expired a century ago. My life there became less like Hemingway’s and more like Clov’s in Beckett’s Endgame, one of almost unrelenting boredom, isolation, and despair.
Steph, who’d done graduate research in Senegal, had warned me to tame my expectations. While it is not without its charms, Senegal could be a hard place to live, she said. It is excessively hot and arid, while the fact that its population is largely Muslim means two of life’s bare essentials—booze and porn—are scarce.
I tried to be realistic. When people asked me what I would do there, I’d say, “Teach English.” But the truth was I didn’t know the first thing about what that would require.
We lived in a city called Thiès, amid a landscape of crumbling highways, gasoline extortionists, and packs of wild dogs. Thiès looked like the set of an old Western movie, with horses hauling timber carts down wide avenues and ancient, dust-entombed buildings with doors that banged open in the wind. Aside from a few lonely shops and a market that sold bootlegged “Dubacell” batteries and “Nice” tracksuits, the place looked deserted. Actual tumbleweeds rolled through the streets.
After a couple of weeks, the rain that had fallen since our arrival ceased and the air acquired a callused, factory thickness. Sweat rolled off my face into my food. Steph was gone most of the day, and I hibernated in the small house we rented, emerging for an occasional sortie to buy orange Fanta and Laughing Cow cheese.
As some of the only white people, or toubabs, around, Steph and I became local celebrities. Each night we received a stream of visitors, some of whom had trekked from across town. We dispensed Fanta to these pilgrims and ushered them into porch chairs. Everybody came. Mere acquaintances, strangers. Many wanted only to sit quietly and drink Fanta by the liter. We figured this was how Senegalese socialized. When we wanted them to leave I’d put on some Tom Waits, which for some reason freaked them out.
Despite my obsessive efforts to keep the boil clean, it had doubled in size only a few days after I’d discovered it. I rinsed it constantly with rubbing alcohol and covered it with bandages. But the bandages became soaked in sweat, came unstuck, and slid into the crevice of my butt. In another week or so it had calcified into a fleshy knoll about two inches in diameter. It resembled an animated clump of phlegm. Never had a boil ballooned on me so quickly. The pain was scary. My posture became distorted. I ate my meals on the couch with cushions stacked under my leg to keep the weight off the boil. Even this became uncomfortable and I started pacing the length of the house as I ate, clomping through the living room and kitchen and backyard, disfigured and bandy-legged like Quasimodo.
Steph helped me change bandages and clean the boil. Under normal circumstances I would have been reluctant to let her get too close to my bare backside. I’m incredibly hairy down there. Every few weeks I have to hack away the overgrown vegetation in my entire Speedo region or I lose sight of the tree through the forest. I even had to shave a moat around the boil so the bandages would stick to skin instead of hair. But these were desperate times, and I soon realized how much Steph loved me. It was a gruesome business, yet she appeared totally unfazed.
Still, things grew strained between us. A part of me blamed her. I was mad at her for bringing me to Senegal. I wanted to return to London, back to how things were. We’d never fought before, but suddenly we were having apocalyptic arguments. Nooky was rare. Had I not been so despondent or felt so stuck, I might have tried harder, found a different approach. Instead I settled for apathy.
My body continued to fail me. The following week I became terribly constipated. This was induced, in part, by the near roughageless Senegalese diet and was exacerbated by the stress of my Kilimanjaroan boil. Laxatives were nowhere to be found (the Senegalese are a gastrointestinally resolute people). Coffee wouldn’t flush me out. Chronic constipation can tip one dangerously close to the psychic brink, and the digestive blockage and boil together were almost too much for me to bear.
At home alone, feeling myself slipping toward a pancreatic shutdown, I began to realize that the boil wasn’t going to burst on its own and would instead continue to fester and grow at a Blob-like rate, and for the foreseeable future I’d remain stranded in this dusty outpost. Steph pleaded with me to go to the hospital, but we’d been there when she was ill, and I refused to pass through its sinister portal again. The place was an abyss of fear and darkness where patients cried out in the halls.
Steph thought I was being a martyr or a coward, or both.
“The hospital is good enough for me and Senegalese, but not for you?” she asked. She had a point. Maybe the problem wasn’t the hospital but the very notion of African medicine. I’d always imagined myself as someone who defied Western cultural prejudices. I mean, I’d read Frantz Fanon and Jean Baudrillard or whoever. But maybe I’m not that kind of person. I didn’t want to be heroic or atone for history with this boil. I just wanted it gone. Deep down, I just wanted out of this place.
Several days passed in which I could barely move from bed. I lay bloated and pale, every horrible movement splintering my ass like cannon shot.
Then one night I awoke to a fierce rumbling in my bowels. I leapt out of bed, euphoria rushing over me as I sprinted toward the bathroom, and reached the toilet just in time. The effect was like throwing the switch on an electric chair: An incredible amount of juice poured through the system in a matter of seconds, and the ensuing mess was frightening.
My relief was short-lived, however, as the boil continued to fester. It had grown steelier and more obscene in its livid, corpselike pallor. Desperate to be rid of the thing, I decided to try to lance it myself. I stripped naked in our windowless kitchen and poked along the edges of the boil with a sewing needle, wincing and gasping, hoping to perforate its iridescent halo. This achieved little, so I attempted to penetrate the hard morass at the center by jabbing the needle into the top of the boil. But its location made this difficult. I wrenched my head back as far as I could, craning my neck over my shoulder while steadying myself on the countertop. But I could barely glimpse it this way. Closing my eye, I swung the pin onto the vicinity of the boil again and again, howling with every thunderbolt. It was like a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, except that the donkey was me. This went on for a minute or so, until I couldn’t bear it anymore and crumpled to the linoleum. Straddling a mirror later, I saw that I had only managed to break the skin’s surface in about half a dozen places and failed to puncture the boil itself, leaving several horrific gashes along the fleshy edges.
Regrettably, I hadn’t thought to sterilize the needle, and the boil quickly became infected. By the time Steph returned home that night, it had mutated into an evil black welt about the size of the top of a Pringles can. When she came in, I was lying on the couch with my pants around my ankles and an ice pack wedged in my crack.
“Ahhh!” she screamed, recoiling in horror.
“What happened?” she asked. I told her. She shook her head. “Bravo,” she said, clapping ponderously. “Bravo.”
From then on my nights were terrible. I’d roll onto the boil in my sleep, sending tidal shocks through my rear. A frenzy of cursing and moaning would overtake me as I struggled out of bed and limped into the bathroom to splash tepid water on the boil. On my way back to bed, my brain would lurch into a tailspin and I’d stand in the hallway whimpering, a wilderness of despair rising around me, my mouth about halfway open to a scream.
One evening, about two months into the ordeal, I staggered into a neighborhood grocery store run by a guy named Samuel. Samuel had a quick smile and spoke a simple French that was easy for me to understand. We talked often.
Samuel and I chatted on a bench by an open door, watching children playing in the darkening street. It was hotter than usual. My clothes clung to me. As I grimaced at the boil chafing against the bench, Samuel asked what was the matter. I told him about the boil, my sleepless nights, my failed lancing, my antipathy toward the local hospital. He leaned back and peered at my ass, his mouth splitting into a huge grin. Straightening, he suggested I go see a griot—a kind of tribal medicine man.
“A griot would love to get ahold of that thing,” he said as laughter seized him and rocked his body back and forth in the twilight.
Recovering himself, Samuel told me about a private clinic just down the road where a doctor could treat me for a modest fee. Wealthy Senegalese went there. “Don’t worry,” he added. “They treat toubabs too.”
The next morning Steph and I walked to the clinic. The building had recently been painted a pasty, sluggish pink with sky-blue trim, which was probably meant to be cheery but depressed me immensely.
The door was open but the lights inside were off. A few elderly Senegalese men were standing around outside talking. I interrupted to ask if the doctor was in as someone emerged from the clinic. He was round and stocky with fat limbs and black-rimmed glasses that were much too small for his face. He looked me up and down, then beckoned Steph and me through the door.
He turned out to be the clinic’s doctor. The inside of the clinic was painted the same pink with blue trim. It reeked of disinfectant, which I took as a good sign. I rambled on to the doctor about my boil, and he told me to lie on my stomach on a gurney with my pants down. I obliged. He snapped on a pair of rubber gloves, gently parted my cheeks with his fingers, and examined the boil through his toy-store spectacles.
After a few seconds he looked up and said, with a hint of melodrama, that I’d come to the right place. He could fix me for the price of about 30 U.S. dollars. Steph gave him the money. He scribbled something on a slip of paper, handed it to me, and told us to go upstairs and find a man named Moussa. Steph and I found Moussa sitting in a closet cluttered with glass vials and stacks of green towels, picking his cuticles. He looked remarkably like the former pro basketball player Muggsy Bogues, except that he had a two-inch Afro and was wearing hospital scrubs inside out.
I handed him the slip of paper. He examined it, grinned eerily, and then motioned for us to follow him down the hall. My heart pounded. I knew that whatever awaited me, it wouldn’t be pretty. We paused at a large room where a dozen or so people were milling around. Moussa told Steph she’d have to wait here. I held her hand until the last second. She whispered, “Jack . . . Jack,” like Kate Winslet in Titanic as Leo DiCaprio sinks into his icy grave. I chuckled, though inside I was dying.
Moussa led me to yet another pink room with blue trim, where I again had to lie on a gurney with my pants down. On a tray next to my head were several scalpels and other medical implements, including a giant pair of scissors. The towel on which they were laid was splattered with dried blood, as was the wall in front of me. As Moussa slipped on a pair of rubber gloves and began swabbing my boil, the doctor walked in carrying a huge syringe. My lungs emptied. It was so big it looked like a stage prop.
The two of them spoke briefly. I wanted to ask about the procedure, but before I could the doctor swung the syringe into the air and brought it swiftly down onto the boil. PLUNK! I screeched. The pain was transcendent. For a moment it seemed disconnected from my body. Then it was upon me fully. I wailed, baring my tonsils. The muscles in my legs contracted, pitching my body sideways, and Moussa leapt onto me. I could feel his strength in my legs as he fought to keep us from spilling off the gurney. Clutching the handrails, I buried my face in a pillow and let loose shrieking animal noises. At some point I began to hear sounds coming from somewhere far off, a muffled heaving followed by short, steady grunts, which I soon recognized as my own. Almost as quickly as it arrived, the pain subsided. My leg muscles relaxed and Moussa climbed off. I glanced back to see the doctor slowly rotating the needle around in the boil, pausing to allow pus to trickle into the syringe’s vial. He smiled and pointed with his free hand while Moussa nodded along. They seemed to be enjoying themselves. For some reason—relief, fear, or exhaustion—I started to sob.
The doctor extracted the needle and twirled it like a baton into a trash can. He showed me the vial, clasped between his thumb and forefinger. It was several inches in diameter, filled with a rosé of blood and pus.
Thinking it was over, I sighed. Then I noticed Moussa fixing some gauze to a pair of hemostats. The doctor, on his way out the door with the vial, patted me on the shoulder and said, “You are very brave.”
Moussa announced that he needed to disinfect the wound. Before I could brace myself, he inserted the hemostats into the opening. Once more, the pain was surreal. I flailed as he swiveled the hemostats around. A long piercing squeal, one that seemed to startle even Moussa, escaped me. At that moment, with my vocal chords distended and my body in a Superman-in-flight pose, I noticed that in addition to the blood on the wall in front of me there were flecks of blue paint, evidence of a shoddy trim job.
It was all over in a few seconds. Moussa bandaged me up and I limped into the hall. I found Steph in the waiting area talking to the doctor. She put her arm around me and said that everyone there had heard me screaming and felt sorry for me. People stared. The doctor walked us to the exit and said good-bye.
The old men were still hanging around outside. I tried to rush past them, but one asked in French whether I was feeling better. His eyes were kind. The other men smiled. It seemed that they, too, had heard my screams. “I’m fine,” I said. The old man closed his eyes and nodded. Placing a hand over his heart, he looked at me and said twice, “Al-hamdu-Allah.” Praise be to God.
On the night of my ass crucifixion, Steph and I toasted the end of the boil with a bottle of Fanta in our courtyard. I couldn’t see her face for the darkness. I stood with my hand on her shoulder, smiling in a narcosis of relief, feeling as though I’d paid all of my bad debts in this lifetime. Steph shifted around on her feet, crunching the sand with her flip-flops. Finally she said, “The worst is over.”
I left Thiès about six months later to start graduate school in New York. Steph had another year on her contract so she stayed behind. The last time I saw her was in the Dakar airport as I was waiting to board a flight home. The rims of her eyes were pink. She had a distant, hollow look. When it was time for me to board we hugged and said good-bye. I cried myself down the jetway.
In the seat next to me was a dark-skinned Senegalese man who fidgeted and sweated a lot in a heavy wool tunic. Before takeoff, a flight attendant approached and asked whether we wanted fish or chicken for dinner. The man didn’t understand. I turned toward him and flapped my arms, making the international sign for chicken. He got it. We both ordered the fish. Moments later we were handed cold Cokes. He cracked his open and guzzled it down. When he finished, he turned his palms up and began praying, murmuring in Arabic. I sat back in my seat, thumbing the window shade. Rain splattered the tarmac as we taxied. The engines rumbled, wheezing briefly as if reconsidering our departure, before lifting us, finally, conclusively, into the falling light.
Excerpted from Open City(Summer 2008), a literary journal that since 1990 has published poetry and prose “with a daring, youthful spirit”; www.opencity.org.