Stephen Wisniewski




I Wanna Be Your Lover


Prince died of an accidental overdose of the opioid pain medication fentanyl. He had lived for a long time with severe chronic pain from a double hip replacement that was required as a result of years of performing on stage in high heels. That sounds more pedestrian and mild than it should, but it seems in poor taste to qualify debilitating chronic pain by saying that both the performances and high heels were absolutely fucking magnificent. You can see footage of Prince rehearsing with his band The Revolution in 1984, crafting a stage show, doing the splits, sliding, dancing, earning the shit out of all that pain. Making it beautiful.
It was explained to me as I signed a stack of consent forms that I would be given fentanyl as part of an anesthetic cocktail to induce twilight sedation – a fanciful-sounding term that meant that I would not be fully unconscious, but would be sedate enough to allow the procedure to go smoothly, and allow me to wake up free of any memory of what had happened.
And so the last thing I remember is playing Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” in my head as they shot fentanyl into my IV.

Not very long ago, I learned that I have a genetic mutation that indicates a high risk for early forms of gastrointestinal cancer. My mother found out she had it by accident, and her diagnosis came with a form letter that would let family members know that such a thing existed, and that they could also be tested for it. I had a 50/50 chance of also containing this malfunctioning gene. And it was easy to discover that I did. And so the only thing to do was to be put under twilight sedation and thoroughly scoped from both ends of my body to see what my cells had been up to. I’d never presented any symptoms and had always been in excellent health, so there was every reason to believe that my cells were behaving. There was every reason to expect they might not find anything.

What they found while I was drifting in twilight were lots of polyps. Lots of little places that my cells had decided that they would experiment with division, for no other reason than the fun of it; no other reason than that they knew all along that they must. They were just following the instructions they were born with.
Doctors removed them on the spot, but there were so many growths that I still need to go back again to get the biggest ones, the ones that were so unexpected that doctors hadn’t safely prepared to address them.
When I woke up, a nice person was there to explain all of this to me. They explained that given my particular genetic glitch, each tiny cellular experiment that they removed came with a 70% chance of becoming cancerous if it wasn’t identified and addressed. I would be doing this once or twice a year now for the rest of my life. And then I made an appointment for my follow-up procedure.

This is not an emergency. Not right now. Right now it’s an inconvenience.
This is nothing like twenty years ago, when I would be regularly shaken out of sleep by my lover’s father to hear that she had spiked a fever in the night, and that we needed to go to the hospital immediately, because her blood might be septic. I was living with them, staying in her sister’s old bedroom that now housed dozens of porcelain dolls made by her grandmother, and now also housed me. She had leukemia, and her blood cells were doing all kinds of dangerous experiments. I’d get shaken awake often, and every time, it would mean that she would live in the hospital for two weeks. We would all watch the same movie on TV over and over again. I’d eat the desserts off her tray that she was too sick to eat anyway. I would help to keep a spiral notebook, recording everything that went into or came out of her, so that we could all imagine that there was some rationality to this insane body horror. I was glad to do what little I could, because we were in love.

Twenty years later, when I emerged from twilight, she was there, as strong as I was sleepy. We are in love. I still had Prince somewhere in my head.

I am fine. But as someone who has been lucky enough to have stayed largely out of hospitals and general anesthesia, to suddenly encounter the thing that might kill me was…strange.
Because it’s not out there – probably not, at least. Not a knife point, or alligator, or airplane debris. The call will come, so to speak, from inside the house. Our cells now continue to do the millions and millions of things that, in aggregate, make us all exist as bodies that walk and talk and take up space in the world. And then, perhaps, some of our cells will decide that it’s time to do some wild thing that was in them to do all along. Divide into infinity. Experiment with destroying each other, or themselves. Follow instructions.