Recovery room. The taste iron on my tongue.
When I was young, I suffered from frequent nosebleeds. Too much capillary tissue, the doctors told us. Massed near the surface of the skin, my blood vessels would dry out, rupture. Eventually, you learn not to tilt your head back – as other people’s mothers were always telling me to do – but until then you grow familiar with the taste of your own blood. It has a metallic quality, like water fresh from a mineral spring. I didn’t find the flavor entirely unpleasant, though the school nurses always looked at me strangely when I told them so.
At a museum in the Rockies, where the air was thin and dry, my nose began to bleed more powerfully than it ever had before. Six years old, I had insisted that we make our way up the mountains to examine dinosaur bones. We left not long after we arrived, my face covered with reddening tissue paper. This was the first time I felt that I was missing out because of something broken in my body. It would not be the last. I remember nothing about the museum except the lobby floor, cold marble that I studied as I shuffled out. Cold marble and the taste of iron on my tongue.
I know now that I was detecting the presence of hemoglobin, a ferrous protein that carries oxygen through the blood. Hemoglobin travels from our lungs to our outer extremities, sparking cellular tissue into action as it goes. Learning of this process in high school, I was initially incredulous. Iron seemed fundamentally inorganic. How could it possibly be part of our bodies? Only the memory of that taste, rapidly oxidizing metal, convinced me that my teacher was telling the truth. In the flavor of my own blood, I glimpsed the first inklings of the scientific method, my taste buds the proving ground of a grotesque empiricism.
What taste? The taste of iron on my tongue. I do not remember waking from surgery on Wednesday night. I remember my mother and Catherine by my hospital bed. I remember asking them the time. Then they are gone and I am coughing, hacking up not phlegm but my own blood. As someone clamps a breathing mask over my face, I am distantly aware that my oxygen uptake is perilously low. Still spasming, I see droplets of blood splattering the clear plastic of the mask. Convinced that I am drowning, I pull it from my face. At this point, I begin to hyperventilate and the timeline grows fuzzy. Eventually someone thinks to put a sedative into my IV drip. Drifting off, my breath regularizing, I think of the museum in Colorado, the thin mountain air, the taste of iron on my tongue.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I was able to reconstruct what had happened. Awoken from the anesthesia, I had panicked at the feeling of a tube still inserted down my throat. Acting on pure instinct, I pulled it out myself, scratching my trachea and cutting the inside of my mouth in the process. I was not dying. There was no internal bleeding, no hematoma threatening to burst, just the superficial traces of my fear. When everyone had calmed down, the attending physician told my mother that “many young, athletic men” have the same response. Small comfort: A successful doctor thinks I’m young and athletic.
The good news is that I can remember very little of this. I can still sense where the striations of the tubing raked the lining of my throat, but nothing of what it was like to yank it out. I recall little more than the wisp of a dream, snow falling on Washington, DC in July. Mostly, I’m left with the taste, not exactly comforting, but not unfamiliar either: Hemoglobin oxidizing in the mine of my mouth.
Iron forms only in dying suns. It is the last thing they produce before they explode into supernovas. At first radioactive, it decays into something more stable, gradually gathers to form the crust of planets like our own. In cultivating the soil, we draw a little of that iron into ourselves. Sick, we spit it out again. As we do, we let extinguished stars caress our tongues.