Everything changed for me when I got sick. I developed a serious infection at the site of my so-called surgery, performed that fateful afternoon back at the Idlewild Hospital just outside Jackson. All went well initially, but then something went wrong. My prostate enlarged dramatically and became badly infected. I saw a team of urologists at the university hospital and surgery was scheduled. I got the green light. They’d slice me open the following week. They kept me in the hospital for testing, including hourly urine samples. I shared a room with six others, although three of the beds remained empty. I had round-the-clock care. Besides my doctor, I had a team of both male and female medical students drop by twice a day. They were always asking to see “down there.” The lead doctor stopped in just before dinner after a grueling day of surgery. He spoke English and wanted to see how I was.

My golden years suddenly felt over. I was having some physical problems that awakened my sense of mortality. When my friend’s mother died at 93, Andrea took steps to sue the hospital. This was an old friend back home. She thought her mother was good for another ten or fifteen years. By90, it’s time. You take a private berth on the Silver Liner. You hang the “Do Not Disturb” sign and lie back. Just don’t do it before reading Tolstoy. Be sure to listen to some Mahler. Catch a play on London’s West End and be sure to try the pastrami at Langer’s in downtown Los Angeles, my favorite restaurant in the whole wide world.

The doctor eased himself on to the floor so we could speak eye to eye. I’d been in the hospital for several days. I would have to have surgery. They wouldn’t operate until my blood pressure came down and I had no fever. I was on an 800-calorie-per-day diet. The lead doctor was a real human being. What a relief. We chatted and he brought me up-to-date. We reviewed my options, and he explained the risks. He would be heading up the team. I would meet the others in the operating room. I mustn’t worry, but I should face the facts. It could be dangerous. I could die. The main concern was post-op blood clots. One of those and I’d be a goner. “Are you ready?” Ready, I wondered. Ready for what? Ready for surgery? Ready for death? The doctor held my hand and asked if I’d like a little something to relieve the pain. He demonstrated the use of the intravenous painkiller, handing me a little pink clicker. I might be dead in a few hours. That was what went through my mind. I was calm but worried. I rested my hand on his knee and had a realization. I wondered if he would be my last friend.

I was preoccupied with death. There’s an endless list of things to do, and you mustn’t get off at the wrong station. You’d be on the express. If you could turn back the clock, where would you stop? At ten? How about when you were at your most sexually potent? Would you like to play short-stop one last time?  Would you prefer to see the Grand Canyon? Some would like the chance to say “Hi” to a loved-one. The way I viewed it, that would just be one more chance to be disappointed. A few years earlier, I would have expected to be back on my feet in no time, but I’d lost my old confidence. I had once been a little Napoleon. Now I was like a toy poodle on a leash. Would I bounce back?  This time I had my doubts.

Sondheim saw our joy mixed with sadness. He even thought to include a little desperation. You’re in your tux but feel like crying. Is it your wedding night or your funeral? Same difference. If only I could pee again without wincing. They expected me to fill their lab bag to the brim. Time to kill. How delightful to review one’s Latin! How about re-watching all

my favorites, beginning with Last Tango in Paris? Wouldn’t it be grand to pat someone’s ass one last time and be thanked for it? Better not get any bright ideas.

The doctor popped by, then I was on my own for the rest of the night. I was visited hourly by a nurse.

“How much pee should there be?” I asked with some embarrassment.

“Enough to fill the bag,” the nurse replied. “Make your last deposit before eleven.”

The sweet nurse came by in the morning. My pubic hair had to go. She offered to do the honors, but I said I could handle it. She didn’t believe me. I insisted. When she came back, she inserted a catheter. You know where. I could barely walk with this thing up there. My dick felt like it was caught in a mouse trap. When it was inserted, I bit the mattress and cried out. The nurse smiled in sympathy. I sat for the rest of the day fearing I might not make it.

She spotted an irregularity in how my IV had been inserted. I was on painkillers and something to prevent dehydration. They were taking so much blood, I had to have a permanent portal inserted in my hand. Most of the doctors and all of the nurses were great, but a big dumb guy had fucked it up. I could tell I was his first patient. He was trembling. His gift-wrapping skills were limited. My arm looked like I’d survived a suicide attempt. When I told the nurse which of the doctors had done it, she grinned. She said she lacked the authority to alter his work, so I would have to wait for him to decide what to do.

The big day finally arrived. It would be soon be time for them to take me in for surgery. “Good luck” was a possible translation of the Japanese, but I came to understand “don’t wimp out” to be a more accurate rendering of “gambateh.” The hospital staff could have been Sioux, but sounded more like Comanche. First, they stripped me naked. With a snap, my two-piece baby pajamas flew right off. I realized I had never before been naked, lying flat on my back, before an audience of eight. Were those war cries I was hearing or instructions? They were painting my body with yellow dye. The surgeon, a flamboyant fellow wearing a navy-blue beret, spoke English with flair. I’d never seen him before. He reminded me of a medicine man. He said he interned at Harvard. Everything would be filmed; he had invented video surgery. He showed me the monitor. He held the world record for success in his field. Talk about being in good hands. I never before met such an arrogant Japanese person. He put me completely at ease.

I was knocked out. He cut me open and shoved long tubes into my veins.  When I woke, he asked me questions and demanded answers. Finally, tawny braves carried me to recovery in intensive care. I couldn’t move. Machines pumped my legs for 24 long hours. It was excruciating. Squaws applied salves and potions. Hours later, when I woke, the head of the department, the Chief, and his entire village council stood at the foot of my bed. They welcomed me back to the land of the living.

It finally came time for the catheter to be removed. I had received permission to walk and was encouraged to exercise. Coming out proved more painful than going in, possibly like a poison arrow. I asked for a slug of whiskey and emitted a desperate sigh. I imagined myself in a cowboy movie, soon to die. Inside my brain, it felt like someone was beating a tom-tom. I didn’t want to dance; I wanted to cry. Nurses came and went all day. I wanted someone to stay. I thought of the people who never came to visit. I was so lonely.

One rarely has a reason to sleep in a lobby. One is unlikely to head out without one’s undershorts or pants. Bottomless is strictly for the birds and little tots. I had ten experts come to inspect my incision and post-operative recovery. I just threw off the blankets. It left me a changed man. It is odd to be reduced to flesh. Nobody is asked his opinion in a hospital. One is not in a knife fight; one hasn’t got a chance. The thought of being cut open is terrifying. Things go wrong. As the pins go in, one becomes a specimen, like a monarch butterfly. You are an insect. That’s how I felt. I was terribly concerned about blood clots. The pumps squeezed my legs and made me want to scream. They took blood and changed my bandages. Some keep their eyes wide open throughout the ordeal. They are fearless. I took one quick look and closed mine. I wouldn’t be myself until the doctor offered me a peace pipe.

I had always been so ashamed of my body. I was desperate as a boy to lock the bathroom door. I stood close in public urinals. I tried to get out of gym class. I made my mother sign excuses while she was sleeping. I was sensitive about being seen naked. I found it mortifying to be forced by al-Otaibi to cross his property in the buff, which among other things made me feel vulnerable and, I must admit, less masculine. He knew what he was doing.

Of course, by then I was much better than I had been as a schoolboy. Gay sex cured me of some of my fears. Cruising was all so frank. I’d had, at first, been practically unable to speak. Bashfulness didn’t take one far. My shyness came to an end. One was forced to say and do what was on one’s mind. Then Malik made me go all by myself out to that shed, first to drop off my clothes, and then later to pick them up. Meanwhile, the gardeners fucked me. It was a helluva thing, but it helped me get over my sexual paralysis. I had been like an old maid, a dud. They awakened something; my inhibitions melted away. Last time I made my way to the shed, I felt like saying, “I’m here. Who wants some?”

In the hospital, what shyness survived disappeared for good. I had so many nurses, doctors, and interns, male and female, come by to ask me to lower my breeches. My God, 50 people peered at my scars, al-Otaibi’s handiwork, not to mention my genitals, and now the new incisions made by the Japanese surgeon. What did I care if somebody saw me naked? I felt awkward wearing clothes. I was careful not to upset the cart, but in my current state, there were few inhibitions left. I was prepared to leave the hospital stark naked.

The entire experience was transformative. I completely revised my opinion of Japan. I loved them all. I saw for the first time the benefits of such a soul-crushing system. Everyone in the hospital worked together. It was like being the guest of a hockey team. They cooperated. They had team spirit. The whole operation revolved around the patients. I must have dealt with as many as 30 nurses over the course of my time there. I was in the hospital a total of 13 days. I could have stayed another week. It was up to me! They wanted me to decide. They all knew what they were doing. I was not required to explain anything. Everything was passed on from first to last. I wore a bar code and had to identify myself 50 times a day. I had to give my name every time the nurse entered my room. I was scanned like a box of cereal at checkout, even before I entered bathroom to take a leak. Even my urine had a number.

They smiled. They tried so hard. They never gave up. They put up with my crappy Japanese. They bravely gave English a crack. They came running when they were summoned. I won’t say what they were asked to do; it wasn’t always pleasant. There was none of this American confusion. I didn’t have a grumpy nurse in the morning and then Mary Poppins at night. They were all on board. This is how the group operates! I was playing with the Yankees. I didn’t have to adjust to each one’s neurosis. Back home, I had once been in the hospital, and it was hit or miss. The morning nurse might have been professional, but the guy who came in after four secretly wanted to throw javelin for the Olympic track team and resented having to change pampers. You could approach the black day nurse, but you had better not ask anything of the hag who came in to take your temperature.

Japan was altogether a different story. The food was piping hot, pulled from a portable oven. I came to see what the Japanese project was all about. Perseverance, patience, coordination; not spontaneity, moodiness, and quirks. I felt so at ease. Everything was done to perfection. They’d made me a believer. I was ready to convert!

Actually, I was ready to leave. I wouldn’t be able to teach for several weeks, so I was let go. They had already found a replacement. Since I was on probation, my contract didn’t allow for my absences, even with a medical excuse. Mr. T. dismissed me. Japanese rigidity proved propitious. No hard feelings, just hard and fast rules. I went from the golden boy to a nuisance overnight. He deeply resented having to pay the employer’s co-pay at the hospital. He didn’t acknowledge my right to sick days. He didn’t care whether I got well or not; all he wanted was to be paid back.

He didn’t even take me back to the airport. I waited for the limousine bus in front of the Omni Hotel and said goodbye. But that was all right. My surgery had been a great success. I was heading for Houston, back to the USA. All I knew, my taxes had better be paid up. I’d made about $7,500 in this short three-month period, but they had been taxing me as a multimillionaire. They were withholding over 70 percent, the school’s payroll secretary explained, because they wanted to prevent foreigners from absconding. They were afraid I might see a doctor and then run for the airport without settling accounts. “If you don’t,” Keiko-san told me, looking both apologetically and accusingly, “you will not be able to return to Japan.” I thought: Oh, really? Let’s see how that works.