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703: Stuck!

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

When they started to prepare for COVID-19 patients at Rogue Regional Medical Center in Southern Oregon, Dr. Somnath Ghosh was part of the team. He's the medical director for the intensive care unit, a pulmonary specialist, and very dedicated to his job. Works long hours, the kind of doctor who gives out his cell phone number to staff, and patients, and families. He tells them to use it anytime. And his wife, Renu, is also a doctor, says he really threw himself into this task.

Renu Gupta

He spent a lot of his even off time at the hospital trying to gear up for the big wave to hit us.

Ira Glass

Right.

Renu Gupta

And he's a little bit of a geek, so got super excited. He's like, "Oh, we today figured out how to use one ventilator on eight patients instead of-- I think four or six is considered the max standard. So he's been calculating, OK, we'll be able to vent 360 patients, preparing for all of this.

Ira Glass

So far, they've been lucky. The pandemic has mostly spared the half million people his hospital serves in Southern Oregon. But I spoke with her husband, Dr. Ghosh, one afternoon last week. He said in total, they've only had three COVID patients that needed intensive care. Dr. Ghosh prepared for a war that he's not having to fight. But all the time, he gets invitations to go join the fight in New York, Louisiana, and other hotspots, begging him to fly out and help.

Somnath Ghosh

Every single day. In fact, I get at least four or five of these a day. And I've been getting them for the last few weeks. I can read you a few.

Ira Glass

Sure.

Somnath Ghosh

"Hi, Dr. Ghosh. It's Elizabeth with Core Medical. I hope you're doing well. We have a client in New York who needs critical care support. Due to a high volume of patients, I hope to connect with you soon. Thank you, for all you do."

Another one says, "Immediate ICU coverage needed. Should you be able to assist, please give me a call or send a CV to" yadda, yadda, yadda. "We can license." Another one says, "Good morning. A facility in Houston area is needing some help in their ICU. Can you help them during this crisis?"

I also have received texts from friends, personally. They're in such a need for critical care physicians.

Ira Glass

Do you wish you can go?

Somnath Ghosh

Oh, hell yeah. Hell, yeah. I mean, this-- I mean, this is what I trained for. This is what I do. This is six years of specialty training, and then nine years of experience. I feel useless sitting here in Southern Oregon while the Northeast is getting pummeled.

Ira Glass

Yeah. Like there's a historic medical emergency that could use your exact special skills.

Somnath Ghosh

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I feel guilty even going home and playing with my kids and watching TV. And I know my friends and my brethren on the East Coast are risking their lives, suboptimal PPE, not enough specialists to help them.

Renu Gupta

So he comes back from work one day. I'm in the midst of getting dinner going for our two children, and he's like, what do you think about me going to New York? I am sitting here. Nothing is happening. And there, they are just dying.

And I think my first flash action was just anger. I'm like, how can you be so selfish? You only always think as a physician. And me, or the kids, or family, just you don't even think about it. And trying to go to New York? Especially, looking for trouble? I'm like, there are other doctors, but I only have one husband. My kids have only one dad. And you're the only son to your mom, who's a widow now and kind of depends on you for everything.

But then I think 10 minutes later, I was telling myself that I'm not surprised by this. He's at his best when he's the physician. He works harder than anything he'll work at at home. He's more patient with his staff and patients than he is with my children. It's just how he connects. I think there's some part of him which just gets very satisfied when he's able to help someone.

Ira Glass

But he's not going to go to New York, and not because of her. Not because of their kids, who are still little. Not because he's worried he'll get COVID. He's young and healthy and has a doctor's overconfidence, assuming he's going to be fine. He's not going to save lives like he wants, because he can't go. And he can't go because of his immigration status. He's in the United States on something called an H1B visa.

Somnath Ghosh

And the rules prohibit me from working for anyone else other than my employer.

Ira Glass

So he has to stay in Oregon. He can't go to work for a hospital in Brooklyn or New Orleans. He can't even volunteer.

We're in a health emergency in the United States. And over a fourth of the physicians here are foreign born. Over 8,000 of those have the kind of visa that Somnath has, an H1B visa, which is given to people who have special education or skills and want to work in the United States.

In Somnath's case, he was born in India, came here for his medical residency, got his H1B visa when he got his first job out of training at the hospital where he still works nine years later. If he had a green card, it would fix the problem. And he's waiting for one, but the backlog on green cards is massive. That'll take decades.

He believes the government should grant exceptions to the rules right now and let health workers with H1B visas fly to the hotspots and help out during this crisis. And dozens of senators and Congress people, mostly Democrats, but a few Republicans sprinkled in, have tried to get the US Citizenship and Immigration Service to do just that, though that hasn't gotten much traction.

So Dr. Ghosh is stuck in Southern Oregon during this crisis, far from the action.

Ira Glass

What if you just went? Couldn't you just go?

Somnath Ghosh

Well, if I do that, then I violate the terms of my H1B, and it becomes null and void.

Ira Glass

Oh, I see. Then you'd be here illegally, all of a sudden.

Somnath Ghosh

Well, yeah. Then I'll be out of status, which means I'll be unemployed. And yeah, that thought did cross my mind. Trust me.

Ira Glass

But the cost is just too high.

Somnath Ghosh

Yeah. If I was just by myself, sure. I'd do what I thought was right, and then I could just up and leave, go back to India or elsewhere. With a wife and a 3-year-old and a six-year-old, yeah, I can't risk that.

Ira Glass

Yeah. How does it make you feel that you can't help?

Somnath Ghosh

Frustrated. Small. I mean, you'd think that common sense will prevail and they'd do what's right for the population, especially in such trying times. You want to yell and shout and scream and say, what exactly are you guys thinking of?

Ira Glass

Dr. Ghosh says before this, he felt happy in Southern Oregon. He's one of the leaders in his hospital. He felt like he belonged. But since COVID, for the first time he's started to think he might leave the United States.

Somnath Ghosh

I've been thinking about this more and more, because my kids are only 3 and 6. They can easily adapt to a new way of life.

Ira Glass

Mm-hm.

Somnath Ghosh

I'll be honest. The community in Southern Oregon has embraced me, and this is home for me. I was happy just doing my job, raising my family. And then when this thing hit and I realized how helpless I am and how inconsequential, it boggles my mind that they don't think that this is a priority. If this happens again this winter with an outbreak and this repeats itself, I'm out of here. I'm done.

Ira Glass

What do you mean?

Somnath Ghosh

Oh, like if this winter season there's another surge and then we're hit with the flu, and the coronavirus, and a personnel and equipment shortage, and they need help, I'm not going to sit around just going through this rigmarole all over again. I'm going to pack my bags and leave. Maybe make a stop in New York or something for a few weeks before I leave.

Ira Glass

So the plan would be to leave, take the whole family back to India. And maybe on the way, you'd work for a few weeks or months in a New York hospital, since at that point it wouldn't matter.

Somnath Ghosh

Might as well. I mean, if I'm going to get out of here, I might as well do some good along the way.

Ira Glass

When I asked his wife, Renu, about that plan, she was like, well, we'll decide about that together. For now anyway, Somnath is stuck, getting texts like this one that he got recently from a friend, a guy who he went to medical school with, who's now in New Jersey, deluged with COVID cases.

Somnath Ghosh

So here he says, "Hey, dude, haven't heard back from you in a few days. What happened to your plans of coming here? We could certainly use you. Getting our asses kicked here. Besides, I haven't seen you forever."

So I reply, "So apparently cannot help, due to H1B visa." So he replies, "Are you f-ing kidding me? We are using residents from unrelated specialties in our ICU. You're just going to sit there?"

So I reply, "What do you want me to do?" And he's like, "This is bullshit, bro. I gotta go. Talk to you later."

Ira Glass

Later in our program, Stuck. There's so many of us stuck at home, or stuck without a job, or stuck on hold for everything next that was going to happen in our lives, waiting for a future to arrive that now seems unreadable and impenetrable.

We have stories of people stuck in some unusual and extreme situations with-- I swear, we are human beings here at our show, we need this, too-- with some happy endings in some stories. From WBEZ Chicago, this is This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave

Ira Glass

Act One, You Can Check Out Anytime You Like, But You Can Never Leave. So our show today is about people who are stuck. And years ago, one of our co-workers, Elna Baker, found herself trapped in a hotel room with her siblings, held there by a stranger.

What happened was, their family was all staying at this Marriott. But they're such a big family, four of the kids were in one room, with the oldest kid and the parents next door. Elna was 14 years old at the time, in the room with 10-year-old Julia, 8-year-old Britain, and 5-year-old Jill, who Elna was sharing a bed with. Elna, the 14-year-old, the eighth grader, was more or less in charge.

And then one night they're all asleep, it's the middle of the night.

Elna Baker

My memory is that it's like I saw like a sliver of light, which is what woke me up, and the sound of the door closing. And there was the feeling that there was someone standing at the foot of the bed.

Ira Glass

Mm-hm.

Elna Baker

So I reached over, and I turned the lamp on. And there was this woman.

Ira Glass

Uh-huh.

Elna Baker

And she looked startled to see us. And the first thing she said was, you're just children. I didn't expect you to be children.

Ira Glass

So that's pretty creepy.

Elna Baker

Right.

Ira Glass

What did you make of her saying that?

Elna Baker

I instantly felt like this is an unsafe situation.

Ira Glass

Yeah. Describe her.

Elna Baker

I remember she was my mom's age, so she was probably in her 40s.

Ira Glass

Mm-hm.

Elna Baker

And brown hair, white, frumpy looking, like somebody you'd sit next to on the bus or something.

Ira Glass

Did she seem menacing?

Elna Baker

She seemed really distressed. She was crying, too.

Ira Glass

She was crying?

Elna Baker

She was crying, yep. She cried the whole time she was there.

Ira Glass

She's crying, and she said, "You're children. I didn't expect you to be children."

Elna Baker

Yeah.

Ira Glass

And did the other kids get up?

Elna Baker

Everyone's wide awake. I distinctly remember my little brothers' and sisters faces, because their eyes were just huge. But no one said anything.

Ira Glass

And are they sitting up, too? Or are they just laying flat still?

Elna Baker

They're still laying flat. Like, nobody moved.

Ira Glass

So what happens next?

Elna Baker

She's talking, right? This isn't how it was supposed to be. And she's also crying. And she's talking to herself. I remember it being very hard to follow what she was saying.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Elna Baker

And eventually I said, I'm sorry. I think you have the wrong room. And she started to cry, and she said, I know, I know. I do this, I do this. I don't know why I do this. And then she's pacing back and forth and crying. And she sits down on the bed, at the foot of the bed.

Ira Glass

Did she seem crazy? Or did she seem upset?

Elna Baker

I mean, it's interesting. I think I-- I was too young and unfamiliar to identify what a crazy person seems like.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Elna Baker

But what I could identify in that moment was that this person was unpredictable.

Ira Glass

So you were just like, oh, I've got to be really careful how I do this.

Elna Baker

I remember feeling that pressure and, in that moment, very, very, very aware of my brothers and sisters, because they were so little.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Elna Baker

And that something bad could happen to them. And that the way that it wasn't going to happen to them was me. There were no adults there. I think it was the first situation I was ever in where there was-- you couldn't defer to someone else to keep you safe or tell you what to do. And what do I do?

And it had that quality of like, time slows down. And you're there, but you're also watching. And so then I did the math in my head, and I was like, OK, I have a couple options. They are cry for help, scream, but I don't think anyone will hear.

Ira Glass

Mm-hm.

Elna Baker

I remember looking at how far away the phone was from me, and I realized I can reach and grab the phone, and I could call for help. Or even like if I could knock on the door where my sister was--

Ira Glass

Sister in the connecting room next door.

Elna Baker

I could-- at least they would know something was happening in here, and they could get to us in time.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Elna Baker

But all of that felt like an escalation, like I would provoke her. And so what can I do to not provoke her and play up the fact that we're children? And what I felt I needed to do was I needed to calm her down and become her friend. And if I could become her friend, she would leave, and she wouldn't hurt us.

Ira Glass

Like, get her to see you as a person.

Elna Baker

It was like, make her think I was on her side. Because then it didn't feel like she didn't see us as people. It just felt dangerous, and I didn't understand why. And I felt like the key to being safe was slowing everything down.

And I remember her saying, I'm really sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I'm here. I'm sorry I'm doing this. I'm sorry.

Ira Glass

Mm-hm.

Elna Baker

And I don't remember this, but my brother remembers that what she said was, I'm sorry, girls. I'm sorry, girls. And that his whole memory of this night was just being like, I'm a boy.

[LAUGHTER]

He was so mad.

And so I ask her. I said, are you OK? Is everything OK? And she kept going on about how her night was so hard. And I was like, I'm so sorry. That sounds really, really difficult.

Ira Glass

And this is you trying to befriend her?

Elna Baker

Yeah, this is me trying to befriend her. But it's weird. I feel like I was hyper alert to, if I can understand what's going on with her, I can help solve it. But I couldn't understand, because it didn't make any sense.

Ira Glass

Did you feel sorry for her?

Elna Baker

I felt concerned for her.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Elna Baker

And then she took out her purse. And she reached into her purse, and then she gripped onto something. And I remember thinking like, oh, no. The way-- I thought--

Ira Glass

Oh, like it's like a gun or something?

Elna Baker

Or a gun, or a knife, or something. I remember my heart just dropping. And then she pulled out a hairbrush. And then she just started brushing her hair, like at the foot of my bed.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Elna Baker

And then at that point, I was like, this is really weird. Like this is like--

Ira Glass

Right.

Elna Baker

And I don't think she's going to leave. And then she sat on the vanity in front of the mirror at the desk, and she took her earrings off.

Ira Glass

Oh, wow.

Elna Baker

And she started taking-- she took her shoes off. She took her coat off. She was just like--

Ira Glass

Oh, wow.

Elna Baker

--making herself comfortable to be here now.

Ira Glass

Right.

Elna Baker

And so I let her do all that and was listening to her go on about what was wrong. And then, eventually, after I felt like enough time had passed, I said we have to wake up early to go to school tomorrow. And we're really tired, so I think we should probably go back to bed now.

And she was like, I know, I know. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry I'm here. I'm here. I'm sorry I'm here. And I said, no, it's totally fine that you're here-- almost like thank you for being here-- but do you mind leaving now?

And so I very slowly stood up and walked over to the door. And every moment was making sure we're safe. And then I opened the door. And she said, OK, OK. And put her shoes on. And then she started to leave. And just as she was about to leave, I said, oh, you forgot your earrings.

And then she started crying all over again, like it was this huge thing. Walked over to get the earrings, and then sat back down on the bed. And I remember thinking, god damn. Why did I bring up the earrings? We were so close to being safe.

So then basically, the whole thing started all over again where I had to listen to her cry, calm her down. And then finally, I'm like, you know, we have to wake up early to go to school. Do you mind leaving? And I walked her to the door, and she walked out of the door. And as soon as she was out of the door, I just pushed the door as hard as I could to close it. And when I pushed it, basically like slammed it shut, she screamed at the top of her lungs.

Ira Glass

And is there a bolt or something on the door?

Elna Baker

I think I did bolt it, after I slammed it shut. And then I heard her screaming in the hallway. And then she ran down the hallway screaming. And then she ran back towards the door screaming.

Ira Glass

That must've been terrifying.

Elna Baker

It was so scary. And then it was quiet. And then I heard this loud-- she's like banging on the door, as hard as she can, right? And then I hear a voice, and it's my dad. And my dad's like, open the door, open the door! And I realize it's not her banging on the door. So I open the door, and my dad's standing there. And he's like, did you hear someone screaming in the hallway?

So then I tell him this whole story. I'm like, there was this woman. She was in our room. I tell him all the details, and he is furious. He was so mad. And then he told us to stay there, shut the door, don't open the door. And then he went downstairs and talked to the hotel about it.

Ira Glass

Yeah, and what did he learn?

Elna Baker

They tell him that she had been outside. She was crying. They asked if she was a guest there. She said, yes. Her name was Elena Baker. And so they looked up the name.

Ira Glass

Elena Baker?

Elna Baker

Elena Baker, yeah.

Ira Glass

And your name is Elna Baker.

Elna Baker

Yes.

Ira Glass

OK.

Elna Baker

But I don't believe this part of the story. I think someone at the hotel just said this to him to cover.

Ira Glass

OK. And then they gave her a key?

Elna Baker

And then they gave her a key. Yep. And so the hotel offered him the whole stay for free, everything for free. And he's like, I don't care about your money. I want you guys to do a formal investigation as to how this happened.

Ira Glass

Wow, that's such a white man takes charge move.

Elna Baker

My dad isn't white.

Ira Glass

Oh, point taken.

[LAUGHTER]

Elna Baker

He's a Hispanic man. Passionate, with such a Hispanic passion.

Ira Glass

I was just thinking, you just never hear somebody be like, I demand a formal investigation. You know what I mean? It's like he's a member of Congress or something, you know?

Elna Baker

Yeah. Yeah.

Ira Glass

All right. Anyway--

Elna Baker

But I mean, that's totally how my dad would-- like, that's my dad.

Ira Glass

Point taken. OK.

Elna Baker

And so they do a formal investigation, which they then send to my dad.

Ira Glass

Long after you've gone from the hotel.

Elna Baker

Exactly. And in it, there's a picture of the woman. And then there's her history. She had been in a psychiatric hospital and escaped that night, come to the hotel. And she had a long history of breaking into people's homes. And he's not certain about this part, so I don't--

Ira Glass

He doesn't remember it.

Elna Baker

He doesn't remember, but he says that he remembers there being like she had attacked people when she'd broken into their homes.

Ira Glass

That's what he remembers.

Elna Baker

That's what he remembers.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Elna Baker

Yeah.

Ira Glass

That part of the story, the investigation, who the woman was, Elna only found that out a couple years ago, when she asked her dad about it. At the time, back when she was 14, her parents kept all that from her and her brother and sisters. They didn't want them to dwell on it or make them afraid of the world. They didn't want that evening to become a bigger deal than it already was. And Elna says today, that worked.

Elna Baker

And it's funny. Even as I've told this story over the years, people are like, oh that's so traumatic, or that's crazy. And I don't want to think of it like that.

Ira Glass

How so?

Elna Baker

It just was sort of like a-- because nothing bad happened, it has no category for me, if that makes sense. It was easier to just think like, oh, this weird thing happened one night when we were in a hotel.

Ira Glass

In retrospect, would you have preferred if they had told you back when you were 14?

Elna Baker

No, I think it's good that I got to live in a world that I think is safe.

Ira Glass

On the other hand, she says if they had made clear how much danger she was in, the family's memory of it and her memory of it wouldn't be of this weird event with no category, this random thing that happened one night. Instead, it would fit squarely into the category called victory, solid win for 14-year-old girl in a big religious family when she got that stranger out of their hotel room without anybody getting hurt.

And Elna says she would have liked that win. When you're trapped inside of a room with an unpredictable person, really, all you've got is your wits, and your ability to read the situation, and your judgment at guessing what will work. Nice to show everybody that even a kid can make the right call sometimes, if they pay attention closely enough.

Act Two: You Can’t Go Your Own Way

Ira Glass

Act Two, You Can't Go Your Own Way.

There's this piece of writing that for months we've been trying to figure out how to get onto the radio, trying to figure out a theme where we could conceivably run it. And it's about somebody stuck in a bad relationship, in this case, an abusive relationship. And it tries to capture what that feels like, in particular all the mental energy that somebody in that situation can put into trying to figure out exactly what they should do to avoid setting off their partner.

In her memoir, In The Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado invented this totally ingenious way to get that feeling across. There's this chapter that's a "choose your own adventure" where she imagines different choices that she could have made. A heads up that this excerpt includes a scene with sexual content. It's read first by actor Zoë Winters.

Narrator

Page 1, you wake up, and the air is milky and bright. The room glows with a kind of effervescent contentment, despite the boxes, and clothes, and dishes. You think to yourself, this is the kind of morning you could get used to.

When you turn over, she is staring at you. The luminous innocence of the light curdles in your stomach. You don't remember ever going from awake to afraid so quickly.

"You were moving all night," she says. "Your arms and elbows touched me. You kept me awake." If you apologize profusely, go to page 2. If you tell her to wake you up next time your elbows touch her in your sleep, go to page 3. If you tell her to calm down, go to page 5.

I choose page 2. Page 2. "I'm so sorry," you tell her. "I really didn't mean to. I just move my arms around a lot in my sleep." You try to be light about it. "Did you know my dad does the same thing? The sleeping damsel swoon? So weird. I must have--" "Are you really sorry?" she says. "I don't think you are." "I am," you say.

You want the first impression of the morning to return to you, its freshness, its light. "I really am." "Prove it." "How?" "Stop doing it." "I told you. I can't." "Fuck you," she says, and gets out of bed. You follow her all the way to the kitchen. Go to page 7.

Page 7, breakfast. You scramble some eggs, make some toast. She eats mechanically and leaves the plate on the table. "Clean that up," she says as she goes to the bedroom to get dressed.

If you stare mutely at the dirty plate and all you can think about is Clara Barton, the feminist icon of your youth who had to teach herself how to be a nurse and endured abuse from men telling her what to do at every turn, and you remember being so angry and running to your parents and asking them if women still got told what was right or proper, and your mom said, yes, and your dad said, no, and you, for the first time had an inkling of how complicated and terrible the world was, go to page 10. If you do as you are told, go to page 8. If you tell her to do it herself, go to page 5.

Page 5-- are you kidding? You'd never do this. Don't try to convince any of these people that you'd stand up for yourself for one second. Get out of here. Go to the next chapter. You're out.

Wait. No. Let's try that again. I go to page 8. Page 8. As you're washing the dishes, you think to yourself, maybe I should put a tack on my forehand. Maybe I should be a better person. Go to page 1.

Page 1. You wake up, and the air is milky and bright. The room glows with a kind of effervescent contentment, despite the boxes, and clothes, and dishes. You think to yourself this is the kind of morning you could get used to. When you turn over, she is staring at you. The luminous innocence of the light curdles in your stomach. You don't remember ever going from awake to afraid so quickly.

"You were moving all night", she says. "Your arms and elbows touched me. You kept me awake." If you apologize profusely, go to page 2. If you tell her to calm down, go to page 5. If you tell her to wake you up next time your elbows touch her in your sleep, go to page 3.

I go to page 3. Page 3. "Baby, if this ever happens in the future, you can always wake me up, and I'll go to the couch. I promise. I really don't mean to do it. I don't have any memory of it. I can't control how I move in my sleep."

"You are such a fucking cunt," she says. "You never take responsibility for anything." "Well, all you have to do is wake me up," you say, a kind of incoherent desperation zipping through your skull. "That's it. Wake me up and tell me to move or sleep on the couch, and I will do it. I swear to you." "Fuck you," she says, and gets out of bed. You follow her to the kitchen. Go to page 7.

Page 7. Breakfast. You scramble some eggs, make some toast. She eats mechanically and leaves the plate on the table. "Clean that up," she says, as she goes to the bedroom to get dressed.

If you do as you are told, go to page 8. If you tell her to do it herself, go to page 5. If you stare mutely at the dirty plate, and all you can think about is Clara Barton, the feminist icon of your youth who had to teach herself how to be a nurse and endured abuse from men, telling her what to do at every turn, and you remember being so angry and running to your parents and asking them if women still got told what was right or proper, and your mom said yes, and your dad said no, and you, for the first time, had an inkling of how complicated and terrible the world was, go to page 10.

Page 10. That night, she fucks you as you lie there mutely, praying for it to be over, praying she won't notice you're gone. You have voided your body so many times by now that it is force of habit, reflexive as a sigh. It reminds you of your first boyfriend, who fucked you while watching porn, how he rutted and rutted, and then every so often lifted the remote to rewind something you couldn't see.

Once you turned your head over the lip of the bed and saw a tangle of upside down limbs, and your brain couldn't make sense of them. You never looked again. You would just lie there silently, watching his face move over you. It was like being unfolded beneath the yawn of the planetarium as a kid-- the sped up rotation of the Earth, the movement of the stars, the constellations melting into and out of being.

You shudder and moan with precision. She turns off the lights. You watch the darkness until the darkness leaves you, or you leave it.

To sleep, go to page 14. To dream about the present, go to page 13. To dream about the future, go to page 12. To dream about the past, go to page 11. I want to dream about the past. I choose page 11.

Page 11. The first time it happened, the first time she yelled at you so much you were crying within 30 seconds from waking, a record. She said, "The first 10 minutes of the day, I'm not responsible for anything I say." This struck you as poetic. You even wrote it down, sure you would find a place for it in a book, maybe. Go to page 14.

Page 9. You shouldn't be on this page. There's no way to get here from the choices given to you. Do you think that by flipping through this chapter linearly you'd find some kind of relief? Don't you get it? All of this shit already happened. And you can't make it not happen, no matter what you do.

Do you want a picture of a fawn? Will that help? OK, here's a fawn. She is small and dappled and loose legged. She hears a sound, freezes, and then bolts. She knows what to do. She knows there's somewhere safer she can be.

Go to page 10. I don't want to go to page 10.

Page 6. You shouldn't be on this page. There's no way to get here from the choices given to you. You flipped here because you got sick of the cycle. You wanted to get out. You're smarter than me. Go to page 10. Fine. I go to page 10.

Page 10. That night she fucks you as you lie there mutely, praying for it to be over, praying she won't notice you're gone. You have voided your body so many times by now that it is force of habit, reflexive as a sigh. It reminds you of-- [FADE OUT]

[FADE IN] --sped up rotation of the Earth, the movement of the stars, the constellations melting into and out of being. You shudder and moan with precision. She turns off the lights. You watch the darkness until the darkness leaves you, or you leave it. To sleep, go to page 14. To dream about the past, go to page 11. To dream about the present, go to page 13.

Page 13. You shouldn't be here, but it's OK. It's a dream. She can't find you here.

In a minute, you're going to wake up, and everything is going to seem like it's the same, but it's not. There's a way out. Are you listening to me? You can't forget when you wake up. You can't go to page 14. I want to dream about the future. I go to page 12.

Page 12. It's going to be all right. One day, your wife will gently adjust your arm if it touches her face at night, soothingly straightening it while kissing you. Sometimes, you will wake up just enough to notice. Other times, she'll only tell you in the morning. It's the kind of morning you could get used to. Go to page 14.

Page 14. You wake up, and the air is milky and bright. The room glows with a kind of effervescent contentment, despite the boxes, and clothes, and dishes. You think to yourself, this is the kind of morning you could get used to. When you turn over, she is staring at you. The luminous innocence of the light curdles in your stomach. You don't remember ever going from awake to afraid so quickly.

"You were moving all night," she says. "Your arms and elbows touched me. You kept me awake." If you apologize profusely, go to page 2. If you tell her to wake you up next time your elbows touch her in your sleep, go to page 3.

If you toss back the blankets from your body and hit the floor with both feet and tear through the house like it's Pamplona, and when you get to the driveway, your car keys are already in your hand, and you drive away with a theatrical squeal of the tires never to return again, go to page 15. Page 15. That's not how it happened, but OK. We can pretend. I'll give it to you, just this once. Turn to page 16.

Page 16, an end. In the pit of it, you fantasize about dying, tripping on a sidewalk and stumbling into the path of an oncoming car, a gas leak silently offing you in your sleep, a machete-wielding madman on public transit, falling down the stairs, but drunk, so you flop limb over limb like a marionette and feel no pain-- anything to make it stop. You have forgotten that leaving is an option.

Ira Glass

Zoë Winters, reading a chapter from Carmen Maria Machado's memoir In The Dream House.

Coming up, a family in quarantine thinks it's figured everything out, doing everything perfectly, until evidence of one tiny, tiny mistake. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show, Stuck. For these long lockdown days, and weeks, and months, stories of people trapped in one situation or another for long stretches, stuck. I say this, recording these words in a closet at home. Here, I'm going to tap. That's the sound of me tapping hangers and a shirt.

So this writer named Damon Linker wrote this column for the magazine and website The Week about how, right now, with schools and jobs shut down, we've all become unmoored from the future. We're stuck in the present. And it's unclear when we're going to move forward to graduation, or a new job, or whatever else we're building for ourselves and our lives in a normal time we would be looking forward to.

And he tries to make the case that this is a big, big deal. "Human beings live their lives in time", he writes. "Our sense of ourselves is partly who we're trying to become." Quote, "A life without forward momentum is to a considerable extent a life without purpose, or at least the kind of purpose that lifts our spirits and enlivens our steps. Without the momentum and purpose, we flounder. A present without a future is a life that feels less worth living, because it's a life haunted by a shadow of futility." End quote.

I have to say, I've thought about that so much these last few weeks, because so many people that I'm close to I just see how they are stressed out by how weirdly formless their days have become. The normal routine is all gone. And all of us have only the cloudiest sense of what the future is going to be. Act Three of our program today is about a family that is in that limbo, hunkered down, trying to get by. When you're stuck indoors for long stretches of time, weird things can happen.

Act Three: Cold Case

Ira Glass

So let's get to this. This is Act Three, Cold Case.

So you know those locked room detective stories where there's a crime in some room, and it's unclear how the culprit even got into the room? This next story is kind of about that sort of situation. One of our producers, Nadia Reiman, explains.

Nadia Reiman

This thing happened recently that made no sense to me at all. My family's been isolating in suburban Rochester, New York, where my parents live, and I mean hardcore isolating. We see no one, we go nowhere. We haven't been inside a store or been around other humans in two months.

For food, we do curbside pickup or delivery, which privilege, I know. Then we do this insane disinfection process where we wipe everything down with a 90% rubbing alcohol, 10% water solution we made ourselves.

When we're done, the room smells like a sterilized doctor's office. When we go for walks, if we see anyone, we cross the street a block ahead. We pick up all mail with disposable gloves, leave it in the garage for 24 hours. We used to spray with Lysol first. We agreed that was overkill. But to be honest, I still do it behind my family's back.

So in my mind, there is no way any germ could break through our impenetrable disinfectant fortress. But somehow, after doing this day after day for seven straight weeks--

Jeremy

Yeah, I woke up fairly early in the morning and felt it. I think I have a cold.

Nadia Reiman

That's my husband, Jeremy.

Jeremy

I was rundown, runny nose, sore throat.

Nadia Reiman

In a couple of days, he was fine. But I was like, how the hell did that even happen? How could he possibly have gotten a cold?

We've been super careful, because he has an immune deficiency, one that affects his respiratory system. It keeps me up at night, sometimes. Because if the cold virus made it into our house, then the coronavirus could too. It meant there was a crack in our armor. I needed to know where we had failed, so Jeremy and I consulted an expert at a very safe social distance.

Nadia Reiman

Where are you?

Ron Eccles

I'm in Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom. And I'm on the coast here, so I'm looking out over the sea. So I'm really well isolated.

Nadia Reiman

This is Ron Eccles, who really knows about colds. Studied them for 50 years. He ran a place called the Common Cold Center at Cardiff University. Almost immediately, I told him all the precautions we were taking.

Nadia Reiman

I don't understand how this is physically possible. I just really want to know how did this happen? How could he have gotten this?

Ron Eccles

Well, it's a bit of a mystery. Let me see if I can ask you some questions to work through it, rather like a detective. You say you've not actually met anybody, so I assume you've not physically touched anybody, shaken hands, or anything like that.

Jeremy

No, not at all.

Ron Eccles

What about the door handle outside? Does anybody else touch that door handle, perhaps to open it? A cleaner or a delivery man?

Nadia Reiman

Well, so here's what I've done. Every time we go out the house, I started to spray the door handle with Lysol. And now I made the paint come off, so there's like a big streak going down the middle of it, because I've sprayed it so much.

I can personally guarantee that doorknob is safe.

Ron Eccles

The next way you could pick up a cold from someone is by what we call an aerosol. And these are just tiny particles. Is there any way that someone could have been outside, and coughing and sneezing, and maybe small particles have come in? Is that a possibility?

Jeremy

That seemed like the only possible way. Because we will see people jogging, walking towards us, and we'll cross the street. And so if there's any potential for them to have sneezed or coughed in the trail--

Ron Eccles

Yeah, that's a possibility, if you're caught downwind from them.

Nadia Reiman

I mean, sure, but pretty damn unlikely. Eccles moves onto a different line of questioning.

Ron Eccles

I'm homing in now on two possibilities for Jeremy. Did Jeremy experience any itching at all with this episode that he had, itching in the throat or nose? Because if you had any itching, I would tend to think that it could be some sort of allergy.

Jeremy

No. No, not that I can recall.

Nadia Reiman

And he's been tested twice. No allergies. Which leaves one last possibility, one I didn't even imagine, like not in my wildest dreams. The thing that made him sick, it was inside him all along.

Ron Eccles

We are carrying a lot of bacteria around in our throat and nose, normally. Now, if we get stressed-- and you did mention that Jeremy did have a bit of a slight immune deficiency, but stress causes us to get even more immune deficient-- then it's possible that some of the bacteria that are normally hanging around in the throat or nose of Jeremy have taken that opportunity of low immunity to make a bit of an infection.

So I think I'm proving that it's probably a bacterial infection, because I can't see how on Earth you would have got a cold with all the precautions that you're taking.

Nadia Reiman

So he had a cold inside of him already?

Ron Eccles

Not a virus, but a bacterium. But it's masquerading as a common cold.

Nadia Reiman

That's his best guess. Basically, the call was coming from inside the house.

Nadia Reiman

How long would Jeremy have been like-- how long would it have been just hanging out there with him? Could it be like months? Could it be something that he had since before the seven weeks that we've been up here?

Ron Eccles

Oh, yes. It could be years.

Nadia Reiman

Really?

Ron Eccles

Years.

Nadia Reiman

It felt good. It meant there was no hole in the armor. All the wiping, the spraying, it was working. Everything was fine. Jeremy also felt good, kind of.

Jeremy

I think in some ways, I might feel less relieved now, because now it feels like it just lives in me and that it's just always there waiting to try to kill me.

Ron Eccles

Don't worry, Jeremy. We all have the same bacteria.

Jeremy

But it's coming after me.

[LAUGHTER]

Nadia Reiman

I have a small confession to make. When Jeremy first told me he felt sick, honestly, I didn't really believe him. I love him, but I thought he was just tired. Turns out, he was right. He was sick. It was real. So here you go. Jeremy, you were right. Sorry, love.

Ira Glass

Nadia Reiman is one of the producers of our show.

Act Four: Unhappy Accident

Ira Glass

Act Four, Unhappy Accident. So we end our show today with a story from our archive of somebody stuck in a momentary difficult situation. It comes from Etkar Keret. The story is all true. It happens in Israel, where Etkar lives, and was read for us in English translation by actor, Michael Chernus.

Narrator

"30 years I'm a cabbie", the small guy sitting behind the wheel tells me. "30 years and not one accident." It's been almost an hour since I got into his taxi in Beersheba, and he hasn't stopped talking for a second.

Under different circumstances, I would tell him to shut up, but I don't have the energy for that today. Under different circumstances, I wouldn't shell out 350 shekels to take a taxi to Tel Aviv. I would take the train. But today I feel that I have to get home as early as I can.

I spent last night at Ichilov Hospital with my wife. She had a miscarriage and was bleeding heavily. We thought it would be OK, till she passed out. It wasn't until we got to the emergency room that they told us that her life was in danger and gave her a blood transfusion.

Three days before that, my dad's doctors told me and my parents that the cancer at the base of his tongue, which had been in remission for four years, was back. And the tumor was at such an advanced stage that the only way to fight it was to remove his tongue and larynx.

The oncologist said she didn't recommend having the surgery, but my dad said that he was for it. The oncologist told him that the operation would leave him seriously handicapped, unable to speak or eat. "At my age," my dad said, "all I need are my heart and my eyes, so I can enjoy watching my grandchildren grow." When we left the room, the doctor whispered to me, "Try to talk to him." She clearly doesn't know my dad.

The taxi driver repeats for the hundredth time that, in 30 years, he hasn't had a single accident. And that all of a sudden five days ago, his car kissed the bumper of the car in front of him, traveling at 20 kilometers per hour. When they stopped and checked, he saw that, except for a scratch on the left side of the bumper, the other car hadn't really been damaged at all. He offered the other driver 200 shekels on the spot, but the driver insisted that they exchange insurance information.

The next day, the driver, a Russian, asked him to come to a garage. And he and the owner, probably a friend of his, showed him a huge dent all the way on the other side of the car and said the damage was 2,000 shekels. The cab driver refused to pay. And now the other guy's insurance company was suing him.

"Don't worry, it'll be OK", I tell him, in the hope that my words will make him stop talking for a minute. "How will it be OK?" he complains. "They're going to screw me. Those bastards are going to squeeze the money out of me. You see how unfair it is? Five days I haven't slept. Do you get what I'm saying?"

"Stop thinking about it", I suggest. Try thinking about other things in your life, happy things." "I can't", the cab driver groans and grimaces. "I just can't." "Then stop talking to me about it", I say. "Keep on thinking and suffering, but just don't tell me about it anymore, OK?"

"It's not the money", the taxi driver continues, "believe me. Yesterday, I went with my son to the graves of the Tzaddikim. We bought blessings for 1,800 shekels, and I didn't mind paying. It's the injustice that gets me." "Shut up", I say, finally losing it. "Just shut up for a minute!"

"What are you yelling for?" the cab driver asked, insulted. "I'm an old man. It's not nice." "I'm yelling because my father is going to die if they don't cut his tongue out of his mouth", I continued to yell. "I'm yelling because my wife is in the hospital after a miscarriage."

The driver is silent for the first time since I got into his taxi. And now I'm suddenly the one who can't stop the stream of words. "Let's make a deal", I say. "Get me to an ATM, and I'll take out 2,000 shekels and give it to you. In exchange, it'll be your father who has to have his tongue removed and your wife who's lying in a hospital bed getting a blood transfusion after a miscarriage."

The driver is still silent. And now so am I. I feel a little uncomfortable for having shouted at him, but not uncomfortable enough to apologize. To avoid his eyes, I look out the window. We missed the exit to Tel Aviv. I tell him that, politely. Or I shouted, angrily. I don't recall anymore.

He tells me not to worry. He doesn't really know the way, but in a minute he'll find out. A few seconds later, he parks in the right lane of the highway after managing to convince another driver to stop. He starts to get out of the taxi to ask for directions to Tel Aviv. "You'll kill us both", I tell him. "You can't stop here." "30 years I'm a cabbie", he tosses back at me as he gets out of the taxi. "30 years and not one accident."

Alone in the cab, I can feel the tears rising. I don't want to cry. I don't want to feel sorry for myself. I want to be positive, like my dad. My wife is fine now, and we already have a wonderful son.

My dad survived the Holocaust. That's not just the half full glass, it's an overflowing one. I don't want to cry, not in this taxi, not next to this driver that I yelled at. The tears are welling up and will soon begin to flow.

Suddenly, I hear a crashing boom and the sound of windows breaking. The world around me shatters. A silver car veers across the next lane, completely smashed. The taxi moves too, but not on the ground. It floats above it, towards the concrete wall on the side of the road. After it hits, there's another bang. Another car must have hit the taxi.

A second before the ambulance drives away, they load the taxi driver into it. Deep in my heart, I was hoping they'd send us in separate ambulances, but it just wasn't my day. The driver, looking revitalized and happy, lights a cigarette. The paramedic wears a yarmulke and tells me I was very lucky. An accident like that with no deaths is a miracle.

"The minute you're discharged from the hospital", he says, "you should run to the nearest synagogue and give thanks for still being alive." My cell phone rings. It's my dad. He's only calling ask how my day at the university was and whether the little one is asleep yet.

I tell him that the little one is sleeping, and my day at the university was great. And Shira, my wife, is fine, too. She just stepped into the shower. "What's that noise?" he asks. "An ambulance siren", I tell him and try to sound casual. "One just passed by in the street."

Once, five years ago when I was in Sicily with my wife and son, I called my dad to ask how he was. He said everything was fine. In the background, a voice on a loudspeaker was calling a Dr. Schulman to the operating room. "Where are you?" I asked. "In the supermarket", my dad said without a moment's hesitation. "They're announcing on the loudspeaker that someone lost her purse." He sounded so convincing when he said that, so confident and happy.

"Why are you crying?" my dad asks now from the other side of the line. I force myself to smile, hoping he can sense it, too. "It's nothing", I say, as the ambulance stops next to the emergency ward and the paramedic slams the ambulance doors open. "Really, it's nothing."

Ira Glass

Michael Chernus, reading a story by Etkar Keret. Etkar's most recent collection of stories is called Fly Already. And just this week, the new TV series that he wrote and directed with his wife Shira Geffen, Middleman, premiered on television in France and Germany. I have seen this show. It is amazing. I hope it gets to the United States soon.

Our program was produced today by one of our managing editors, Sarah Abdurrahman and Aviva DeKornfeld. The people who put our show together today includes Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Emanuele Berry, Susan Burton, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Noor Gill, Damien Graef, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Lilly Sullivan, Chris Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Julie Whitaker.

Our other managing editor is Diane Wu. Our executive editor is David Kestenbaum. Special thanks today to Harrison Nesbitt, Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, and Eileen Berry.

I first read about Damon Linker's column in The Week, by reading Andrew Sullivan's column in New York Magazine. Our website thisamericanlife.org where you can stream our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free during your lockdown or your commute to your essential job.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, before he began his distinguished career in public broadcasting, Torey worked in an ice cream truck. But, I don't know, man, there were certain basics of the job I think he never got used to. Every single stop, he would greet the customers crowding around the window exactly the same way.

Elna Baker

You're just children. I didn't expect you to be children.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.