by David Fitzpatrick
I delivered my first and last speech at Toastmasters in mid-December, just before I left to have jaw surgery. It didn’t go exceptionally well – the speech, I mean. “Okay,” a comely yoga instructor whispered to me as I rushed past her on the way out after my brief talk. “You were able to get out several words – that’s a start.” Another member e-mailed me the next day: “Hey, I didn’t understand what the hell went on but we all struggle coming out of the blocks sometimes.”
The group was composed of people who wanted to improve their public speaking skills. There were twenty in our cohort, local businesspeople of all ages who trudged in twice a month to a partially abandoned City Hall and took their turns up in front of the fold-away podium and gold and navy tasseled banner. They practiced their delivery, gestures, their tone and their inflection – everything. For two hours twice a month. It didn’t so much matter what the speeches were about. It was more getting up there and practicing. Doing it. “The Key to a Happy Life,” or “The Truth about Toll Booths,” were some. One scientist spoke on, “How to Understand the World of Microbiology.” Another time I heard a reserved, female doctoral student deliver a semi-charming ditty on the metaphysical significance of cat food. I believe she was shooting for a David Sedaris type of thing. It fell a bit flat but I admired the attempt.
There were handshakes, applause, certificates and once members brought in macadamia-nut cookies, Diet Coke and Ben & Jerry’s for the break. Champagne for the Christmas party. Decent, driven people who wanted to get better at their skittishness and anxiety in front of a crowd. One had to appreciate their guts, their balls.
I delivered my speech after a woman named Mallory shut the lights off, lit a cranberry-scented candle, and led us in a rendition of “Silent Night,” in German. I believe it was in recognition of the English-German Christmas truce of 1914 during World War I. I felt foolish but I sang along to the handed-out lyrics, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht…” A bunch of us crooning way off key for a minute and a half in a language we didn’t even know.
You wouldn’t think it would be a tough act to follow.
When I was recovering from my operation for condylar hyperplasia (overgrowth of the jaw) in the Intensive Care Unit at Yale New Haven Hospital, my family came by and gawked at my face. My little brother cried when he saw me and my mother blessed herself and said, “That’s it – I’m never getting plastic surgery.” My sister said the operation lasted eight hours and that they had to stop in the middle of breaking and resetting my jaw to order a special saw from a cross-town hospital. My mother recited some facts she’d gleaned from the doctor – that my lower chin bled excessively; that the right side of my upper lip would be numb for two to five months; and that I now had five Titanium plates in my upper palate for the rest of my life. “The doctor said you’ll be safe passing through metal detectors,” she said and kissed me goodnight. My brother left without looking at me a second time.
“I get freaked out when I see your face,” he said.
“Your audience judges you from the moment you stand up to speak,” the Toast master booklet reads. “If you are dressed well and are neat and clean, their initial impression of you will be positive. However, if your voice is squeaky, your words unintelligible or your voice too loud, their positive impression quickly will become negative. You must pay special attention to your voice.”
While recovering, I received extra pain medication from Rhoda, an efficient Haitian nurse with a mini-Afro. The surgeon, Dr. Scottelli, had said I might experience some mild hallucinations and not to panic. “Your therapist told us about your history so we’ve got some extra Ativan on site to assist you if it gets too much,” he had said. “Don’t fret, your smile will thank you soon for what we did.”
Last summer I went away for a week to a writing workshop in Provincetown. On my first night there, outside of a lavender internet café, a stumbling man in a cherry-red wig waddled up to me and said, “You look like Clark Kent on a mission to save the heterosexuals.” His breath was sweet and warm with alcohol, his teeth, yellowing.
“Really?’ I said and he grinned, saluted, and walked away. Earlier in the afternoon, my family had brought me for some fried clams to a tiny place on the water and gave me gifts for my forty-second birthday. My little brother gave me a James Taylor CD and whispered something cruel about, “being surrounded by all these fags;” my father gave me seventy dollars and slapped my shoulder; my mother a prayer card; and my sister some haiku that she’d written. In one way or another they spoke of new beginnings, fresh starts. My mother’s card was something from Isaiah 9:2, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The whole thing was a bit corny but it felt good to be with everyone – just healthy and alive. Smiling.
I went to Toastmasters on a dare from my psychologist. “Surprise me,” he said. “If you go I swear you’ll get a month’s worth of sessions for free.”
“Are you serious?’ I said.
“Not at all,” he smiled. “But I think it might be good for you to get out there, to go. Sometimes the best thing is to be a little uncomfortable.”
Dr. Laney is fifty-six and looks more like a poet than a therapist, or maybe, if he added a beret, an architect. He’s got silver hair that sweeps to the right side of his head, black spectacles and a white beard. He’s very directive, even a little pushy. I’ve been seeing him for a very long time and he wears a lot of linen shirts buttoned up – that’s what struck me when I first saw him. “You’re kind of boring but I like your shirts,” I said.
“That’s as good as reason as any to stay,” he replied and so I remained. In the beginning, when all I could do was shuffle (I was a bloated 385 pounds back in 2000) from the group home to his office on Whitney Avenue, I’d stop twice and rest on the benches outside the Yale University Law School. Across the street was the Grove Street Cemetery, where they offered tours for history buffs; usually senior citizens working their way from headstone to crypt, sometimes taking notes as the tour guide spoke. The imposing gate out front is inscribed with the words, “The Dead Shall Be Raised.” Outside those gates, the students seemed to be moving so rapidly, bopping past me, holding hands, jogging, laughing with some beautiful girl or boy from New Zealand or Zimbabwe or Pittsburgh. I’d memorize snippets of their conversations and jot it all down when I returned to my room in the home. Every day I’d take two quotes I’d overheard from students and fall into the tales that way – I started writing stories. Maybe a pretty girl just found out her that friend had screwed her boyfriend or the dashing young Dean of Students had developed a penchant for bargain basement prostitutes. That kind of stuff kept me relatively sane. Further and further away from the blood and the whole mayhem of my past. It got me through, as they say. And so did Dr. Laney.
“More than half of all communication takes place nonverbally,” the local Toastmaster President, Randy, told me when I showed up for that first meeting. He was a burly guy with a red and grey mustache and a ruddy nose. Something about him made me think of a friendly walrus. “Be aware that you are constantly sending nonverbal messages,” he said. ”When you speak in public, the listeners judge you and your message based on what they see and what they hear.”
“Sounds rough,” I said and he smiled, holding up his palms.
“What’s not rough?” he said. “I think everything that’s worthwhile is rough.”
“Yeah?” I said, my eyes on his ruddy nose.
“Think it about, man,” he said, counting on his rather stout fingers. “Raising children, getting along with people, speaking before an audience. Then there’s love, women and money, everything. It’s all rough.” He looked at me and pointed at my hand and said, “You’re shaking a bit.”
“Just a little nervous,” I said, blushing.
“Yeah,” he said, twisting his head until his neck cracked loudly. “You should sign up – it would be good for you.”
Orthognathic comes from the Greek word orthos, meaning straight, and gnathos, meaning jaws. Orthognathic surgery shapes up the face by straightening teeth with orthodontics and repositioning the jaw with corrective surgery.
“You had a severe facial asymmetry – an uneven jaw,” Dr. Scottelli reminded me in the ICU the second day after the operation. “You would have been screwed as your jaw continued to overgrow to the right side. Now you’ll have a very good smile, a well-proportioned face.”
“Can I have a mirror?” I said impatiently in a garbled voice, my throbbing teeth bound in wires.
“You just had surgery so don’t panic at what you’ll see,” he said, signaling to a hovering Rhoda to bring a mirror. “You’ll feel depressed and a little ugly for awhile but things will get better.”
“How long will it be?” I said, my jaws pounding.
“Things take time, David,” he said. “You certainly know about that.”
“Where the fuck is my face?” I cried out when I saw the reflection. I was entirely black and blue beneath the eyes, jowls swollen, nostrils engorged, chapped lips covered in sores. I looked like an angry, bedridden cousin of a blowfish.
“Don’t panic,” Rhoda smiled at me, white teeth against ebony skin. She patted my arm and gave me some medication. Dr. Scottelli squeezed my hand and said he’d check in with me later. He was very tall, about six foot five, and had to dip his balding head when he exited the room.
“He’s cocky,” I said.
“The man cuts into mouths with precise, electric saws three days a week,” she laughed. “You need someone cocky! Just relax and drift. This will make you feel very good, very positive.”
So I listened to Rhoda and floated out the door, away from my body and the oxygen machine, away from the linoleum floors and the canary-yellow Slippery When Wet signs. I came to a turquoise, oval pond with scrumptious tulips and massive pines, but couldn’t find a friendly face. There were other swimmers in the water, their eyes closed reverently as they floated. I dove in and found the water silky, delicious, and I twisted and pushed myself off the sandy bottom and sprang to the surface.
A woman was doing naked cartwheels in the water closer to shore, her splayed legs and genitals glistening in the sunshine. When I reached her, we wrestled in the shallows. I tried to kiss her and she opened her mouth wide and swallowed me. “It’ll be easier this way, my friend,” she said and took off into the sky.
We went up beyond the tree line, then we rose above some seagulls and she hummed something sweet and rhythmic. “You know, I’ve never been inside a woman in this capacity,’ I said, adjusting to the sensation.
“Just be quiet and enjoy the view,” she laughed.
When things were particularly excruciating all those years ago, I’d call Dr. Laney’s voice mail and leave these rambling, relatively incoherent messages. I’d call from emergency rooms or out of state hospitals and talk about how much I wanted to get rid of the blackness inside of me. I saw it as an infection of sorts, a collection of shit and angst and all the weakness and hell sucking me up from within. A lot of times I’d run away from institutions and do unfortunate things to myself; burning, cutting, punching myself like some spastic monkey until my lips bled.
Another time I convinced myself what I really needed was a simple tattoo to solve my problems. I found my way to a rundown parlor in West Haven, right on Campbell Avenue near the veterans’ hospital. There were samples on the wall of all the wares – exploding bombs and missiles, bleeding hearts, butterflies, day-glow swastikas, excessively buxom girls with rainbow nipples. I decided on something I’d been thinking about – something related to that infectious blackness inside. I walked out with three ebony teardrops on my shoulder.
It was a silly, stupid thing. Later that day, when I was being searched at the hospital after returning, a worker saw the tattoo and said, “What the hell is that?”
“Nothing,” I said, embarrassed. “Truly.”
“In some cities that signifies gang membership,” he said. “You need to tell your doctor about this.”
“Look – it’s really nothing,” I said. “Do I look like a freaking gang member?”
But it was too late. Soon they had my family on the phone and then all the doctors, a social worker – the whole goddamn cavalry. It’s an amusing story to look back on but then it was just another pain in the ass. Something more to get on myself about.
It cost forty-five dollars for a membership to Toastmasters and when I signed up I wasn’t sure if I did it more for Dr. Laney or for myself.
“You son of a gun,” he smiled when I told him. “I do believe you’re beginning to develop some large ones.”
“You’re crass when you’re pleased,” I said. Then I told him about all the Toastmaster paraphernalia they give new members – a magazine subscription, a workbook on all the nuances of communication. Ribbons for good speeches.
“Do they hand out team sweatshirts or anything?” he smiled.
“You know,” I said. “Sometimes you don’t even remotely sound like a therapist.”
“What do I sound like?” he said.
“A sardonic asshole sitting in the back of the class in eighth grade,” I said.
He held his hand up and said, “I’m sorry – listen, when is the first speech?”
“Two weeks,” I said. “It has to be about five minutes. They recommend something very basic but I’m thinking something more ambitious.”
“Would you like any guests?” he asked.
When I first got out of the hospital after surgery, I stayed at my parents’ house for a week in Guilford, Ct. My mother was a dutiful nurse, crushing all the medications for me and offering chocolate protein shakes and strawberry Fribbles. For the first five days I couldn’t sleep more than two hours a night, leaving me to craft long, inane email rants to a few right wing blogs. When I finished I’d be up at four so I’d bundle up and go for slow walks (my lungs were completely exhausted if I moved too rapidly.) There was a cove about one hundred yards beyond the dark marsh and the house and I’d pile on the layers and sit on a stone slab at the small beach and wait for the birds to do their thing and welcome the sun.
It would begin with a single call, almost like quiet tears. First, very faint and gradual and then a spilling of sounds: hopeful lullabies, soaring melodies, loud discordant sobs. Then a cacophonous, echoing rush of all them meshed together – the mournful, the aggressive, the joyous and the hungry, the robins and the doves and the seagulls.
When you begin the first five minute speech in the program, The Ice Breaker, you typically rise and walk to the podium to applause, shake the hand of the greeter and speak. You should usually begin with the phrase “Fellow Toastmasters, honored guests…” Some like to use props to make their speeches lively and also to give their hands something to do. For instance, the girl with the nearly-humorous speech on cat food, brought in several cans of Fancy Feast and a poster of Oscar, her chubby tabby.
I decided to do my first speech on self-destruction, craziness and how to come back from it. I brought all my old tools along in a bag – matches and Marlboro Lights and some Black and Mild Cigars, razor blades, and a knife. I was all set to take them out and lay them on the table, when I looked at the audience, trembled and thought, “What the fuck did I get myself into?”
In 1994 I stopped at a rest area in North Haven off I-91, urinated, washed my hands and cut off part of my left index finger with a Ginsu knife. I then drove twenty minutes to an emergency room with it resting in the pocket of my stained T-shirt. (Surgeons at the hospital would later reattach my finger.) As I was being watched in the psychiatric emergency room, I asked to see the chaplain, a Father Timothy Shea. He knew me from previous visits and he prayed with me and asked me to tell him about the significance of this act. He was a short, stocky priest with malodorous breath and he patted my arm periodically as I spoke.
“I think of it as a talisman – a reminder,” I said.
“Of what?” he asked.
I told him that I wanted to die, that I was tired of struggling and that I almost slit my throat in the rest area before taking it out on the finger. I told him that I needed to do something that would remind me how my family would feel if I ended my life. To keep me safe.
He shook his head and said, “My God, young man, what have you done that’s so horrible?”
“I’ve done nothing,” I said and he raised his very bushy left eyebrow.
“I don’t quite get it,” he said.
“I’ll be thirty-one soon,” I said, my voice rising. “And I haven’t done a fucking thing in my life.”
“Listen,” he suggested with a smile. “I’m fifty-six and I haven’t accomplished much myself.”
“No!” I shouted, suddenly greatly fed up with this stupid man. “You don’t get it – I’VE DONE ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!”
Then I cursed at him, threw a bed pan until some aides restrained me and eventually a pretty nurse gave me something calming, something that made me fall very quickly and far and deep. I tried to tell him it wasn’t his fault – certainly, it wasn’t his fault but my eyes closed and I was gone.
I don’t know exactly what I was thinking would happen on that night with the speech. I guess I didn’t want to be just another ordinary, boring guy and introduce myself by saying, “Hello, I’m David and I enjoy writing, reading and going to movies with busty women.” I thought I could blow everyone away with a moving tale of depression, suffering, and then redemption. I thought I could shed some light on mental illness; show them the face of a formerly crazy fellow. An ex-nut with scars who recovered from all the crap. I wanted to shock and enlighten at the same time. I wanted to…impress them with my gestures, my intonation, my articulation and all the trimmings.
It didn’t work out that way, though. My backup plan was to discuss my younger brother Dennis, and so I also had a gold medal of his from the Special Olympics in my back pocket. Just in case.
I saw Dr. Laney come into the conference room out of the corner of my eye. He took a seat in the back and nodded at me when I looked his way. He had a rag wool sweater and a black pea coat – a hip counselor’s disguise. We had talked about how this was unusual, a boundary that he wouldn’t usually cross with his clients. I hadn’t told him about what I’d plan to speak about though.
“My fellow Toastmasters, honored guests,” I said and then began to shake as I felt the collection of weapons inside the plastic bag. (My mind raced: These people didn’t know me from Adam – why should I reveal intimate, embarrassing, painfully low points in my life? Maybe if they were my friends or family – maybe if there was some greater purpose. But who were they? It wasn’t their fucking business what happened to me. They’d just as soon sit through a soliloquy on cat food for Christ sake! They’d just as soon be singing “Silent Night” in German!)
“I’m afraid I’m going to keep this speech extremely brief,” I said. “About eleven more seconds, actually. I – uh, think I need to regroup or something. But I want to especially thank an honored guest in the back for coming all this way to attend.”
Then everyone turned around and looked at Dr. Laney, who started clapping awkwardly until a few others joined in. I quickly shook the hand of the head Toastmaster who had suddenly appeared before me at the podium – the show must go on, I guess. I took the collection of razors, knives, cigars and Marlboro Lights and walked over to the trash and threw everything out. I saved the gold medal from my brother for another time. Then, I got my coat, shook a few people’s hands and exited the conference room quickly. There was a maintenance man waxing the floors of City Hall with a hulking machine and it groaned and hummed as I walked past him.
“Are you even going to wait for me?” Dr. Laney shouted, his voice echoing above the floor cleaner.
I turned around and waited for him in front of the huge clock in the hall. It was just past 7:30. “I hope I didn’t disappoint,” I said and he waved his hands dismissively.
“Fuck that,” he said. “I’m proud of you – I thought you handled that awkward ending very professionally.”
“I don’t know,” I said and walked down the steps to the door with him. “But thanks for coming anyway – I had much better visions in my head about how this was supposed to turn out.”
“Were you planning to tell them all the gory details of your seventeen year struggle in the five minutes you had allotted?’ he asked.
“A little too ambitious, huh?” I said.
“Maybe a pinch,” he said and patted me on the back. We went through the front door and down the steps. There was a stiff, northwesterly wind whipping down Church Street and the New Haven Green looked barren save for a small crowd of brave souls singing carols in front of an overly blue-green Christmas tree. “You want a ride?” he asked as we approached his car.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said and climbed into his navy Camry. I thought perhaps
I should offer to buy him dinner or ask him if he wanted to see my apartment but I figured that was probably pushing professional boundaries to the limit. We drove down Chapel Street in silence and hooked a right onto Orange. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” I said.
I pointed over towards the right and he pulled over across from the closed Ninth Square Market. There was a couple embracing outside of Foster’s Restaurant and another woman, a tiny Hispanic grandmother who lived across the hall, walking her schnauzer.
“You take care,” Dr. Laney said and shook my hand. “I’ll see you next week.”
I left my parents’ house from convalescing for a week after the surgery and returned to my apartment in New Haven. I hadn’t thought I’d miss my second story view of the back parking lot, chain link fence and the three birch trees in the courtyard. Especially when compared to my folks’ house with the beach and those songbirds, but it felt good to be back.
I started having spasms in my mouth after another week that felt as if my upper teeth were being torn out of my face. People had trouble understanding me. When I saw the surgeon about it, he said that was the splint shifting inside the mouth and that it probably had food particles that caused the discomfort. “I highly recommend not speaking at all,” he said.
“What do I do for the next six weeks?” I said, shocked.
“You’re a writer,” Dr. Scottelli said. “Just take a vow of silence and do your thing.”
So I listened to him (what were my options?) and tried to stay disciplined and wrote like crazy. I went for long walks and took in the crumbling, textile warehouse on State Street with the fractured windows; the abandoned construction site across from Rite-Aid on Church Street where a new community college was supposed to be built two years ago; and the relatively sleazy Center Grill, where someone always seemed to be getting arrested or shot. When I returned to the apartment and sat at my desk, I thought I’d write about the razed earth and urban blight.
But I didn’t. I wrote about things tinged with a little life and lightness. One afternoon, that textile warehouse with the shattered windows looked nothing short of brilliant. The feeble late-winter sun, the grey and purple dusk, the pinkish-white dawn, everything was so clear and singular. At one point I thought perhaps I was manic but when I broke my vow of silence and spoke with Dr. Laney on the phone, he said, “You know, it’s really okay – feeling good sometimes means you’re actually feeling good.”
“I feel very alive, very sensory-aware,” I told him.
“I’m sorry to tell you this but write me all about it. Describe what you’re feeling in a letter. I’m having a hard time understanding you.”
“Great,” I said and hung up. Then I walked into my room and sat at the computer. I described the three birch trees out in the courtyard – how they were all I had in terms of life back there save for a few bushes that wouldn’t blossom for another few months. But out the bedroom window where I sat at the keyboard, all I saw was the left side, the naked branches of one of the birch trees. For the past fifteen months or so, there’d been an ugly, beige Wal-Mart plastic bag stuck on the upper level of it. It bothered me – I wanted to get a ladder and rip it down. I wanted to call the landlord and complain. It made the tree look awful and depressing and weak, clinging up there like a cancer.
Then last summer I watched the trees explode with greenery and lushness and life and for awhile you couldn’t see the bag. I thought it was gone, kaput. Then in the late autumn when the leaves fell, the bag reappeared, waiting for me. It seemed to be wedged in there solidly. It really pissed me off. And it stuck around no matter what. Very fucking aggravating. Anyway, last week I came home from another doctor’s visit, feeling defeated, and saw five multi-colored trash bags stuck on my birch tree.
It was thrilling. The night before there’d been a huge, gusting wind storm and animals had gotten into the trash so the whole courtyard was messy and filled with empty milk containers and tampon boxes, cookie wrappers and shredded bags.
The birch reminded me of an Easter basket, a bargain basement Christmas tree! It was a collection of sky blue, raspberry, neon yellow, candy apple reds! All these ripped and torn pieces of plastic. They were all up there blowing and moving with the beige Wal-Mart bag. All of these trash bags working together to make my birch shift and shine and bloom like lilies on the side of a mountain.
My teeth remained wired until the seventh of April and the splint came off a week before that. It was beautifully liberating and I kept trying to get into conversations with perfect strangers so I could practice saying words again, to enjoy the consonants and the vowels and the feel of my tongue finally freed from behind my teeth. “I feel unusually alive and quite extraordinarily extravagant and excitable,” my mouth repeated.
The Toastmaster’s booklet on the speaking voice ends with this paragraph:
“Your best voice can help bring out your best self. Nature has given you a priceless gift in your voice. It is the means by which you can communicate with others – the medium of your message. It also makes possible understanding and camaraderie. Take advantage of this opportunity – because by your voice and your words, you influence others.”
Now it’s almost May and I’m still getting e-mails and the Toastmasters’ magazine from the group. Sometimes, I think I could have delivered that intense speech, but at a different time, with more practice.
What I plan to do one of these days, when I’m sitting in my apartment, is check on the status of that beige plastic bag. I’ll study how it shimmies and shifts in the tree and write something I can be proud of. Then at some point, I’ll walk to a café or maybe just a local group of writers and read to people. I’ll clear my throat, inhale, place my hands on the podium (there’s always a podium in these musings), struggle at the start and become more comfortable as I read. But I’ll always begin with the same thirteen words. “You have to listen to this – I think I may have something here.”
David Fitzpatrick’s fiction has been published in Fiction Weekly and his nonfiction has appeared in New Haven Review. He works in an auto dealership and attends the low residency MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University. He received his BA from Skidmore College. David lives in Middletown, Ct. with his fiancée.