I try to purse my cracked lips open, sputtering through the mesh of teeth and wire. At first it's just saliva, but then the colors begin to run red. Pressing against the back of my teeth with my tongue, I try to push the refuse through what gaps I can to no avail.
Finally, I take my fingers, covered in blood and drool, and begin slowly pulling the phlegm out from my mouth in threads, as though I'm spinning the worlds most revulsive scarf.
I can't talk. I can't eat. Five days ago I was found in the street in a pool of my own blood. Details are still emerging, but what we know so far is that bystanders were unable to wake me up, and when EMTs arrived and were finally able to revive me, I was disoriented and severely injured. Toxicology reports would reveal that I tested positive for benzodiazepines, or benzos, prescription medications that I do not take recreationally and are frequently used as date-rape drugs. I suffered a severe chin laceration, a fractured jaw, two fractured cheekbones, and two of my teeth were extracted. A metal plate was placed into my chin and my jaw has been wired shut, rendering me unable to eat or speak for the next six weeks.
Dating however, is still very much on the table. These are my chronicles of dating without a voice.
I only moved to Chicago in January, leaving all of my friends and family back in San Francisco, so I had a pretty limited network of on-the-ground people that could visit me in the hospital. I reached out to my mom back in California immediately after the accident. The second person I reached out to was a young woman who I had been dating. We'll call her Elise. She was arguably the person I was most intimate with here; it was common that we'd spend 3-4 nights a week at each other's house. Although she was only 23, she was incredibly intelligent and mature, and I believed that we had grown to have quite an affection for each other.
As I lay in the hospital, passing in and out of consciousness, I'd gently raise my phone to my face. Friends and family had been inundating me with phone calls, text messages, Facebook well-wishes and the like.
But I had not heard from Elise. After initially hearing of my injury, she told me she wanted to visit, but then went radio silent. I certainly didn't want to inconvenience her by having her at my bedside, and I let her know as much, but at the same time: I quite nearly died. And the thought of doing that alone was terrifying. Had my chin, cheekbones and teeth not absorbed the brunt of the impact -- had it been my cranium or had I not been found and instead continued to bleed, unconscious in the snow -- things could've turned out much, much worse.
I had been told that I would return home Monday evening. As I became increasingly aware that Elise wouldn't be visiting me in the hospital, I reached out to see if she might want to watch movies at my place that evening. We had just finished True Detective together, and having her at my side felt right.
"I have plans that evening I don't think I can cancel," she informed me.
"Ah. Got it." I responded.
I felt hollowed out. Plans that couldn't be cancelled at 10:00 p.m. at night? A date? The notion of that in itself didn't bother me -- we had been openly dating other people -- but for the love of god I almost died. A few minutes prior, a patient who had been staying next to me, a cantankerous elderly black man who just hours earlier was sassing nurses, pleading with them for "Hennessy and Coca-Cola" had aspirated and was wheeled out, lifeless. To be alone in a new city, unable to speak, surrounded by unabated fluorescent light and the smell of death is a terrifying experience.
I'm the kind of guy who leans heavily on his interpersonal skills when it comes to dating. I'm not a terrible looking guy, but I still need to put in lots of work, recover from typically fruitless efforts, and focus relentlessly on stripping away the artifice that generally accompanies dating. I host a weekly podcast called Full Disclosure, which happens to loosely deal with the topic of sex and dating.
Being a podcast host and comedian, it's essential that I'm able to communicate effectively using my words. Speaking about my feelings and getting others to share theirs has always been second nature to me. So when I was told told that I would be stripped of that ability, I naturally freaked the fuck out.
Because Full Disclosure is all about being transparent, I figured I had no other choice in how to approach dating with my temporary disability.
I awoke from surgery. Many of my teeth were horrendously chipped, two of which were fractured beyond salvage and removed during the surgery. Just two days prior, I had been enjoying my first St. Patrick's Day in Chicago, serenely overlooking the Chicago River, which had been dyed green for the spectacle of St. Patty's Day novices such as myself.
Transparency. There's no other way, Eric. I reached for my phone, and immediately changed my OKCupid picture to a rather jarring and candid shot of what I was going through:
I put an update at the top of my profile letting people know this was for real:
Was just involved in a serious accident and fractured my jaw in three places, which is now wired shut for 6 weeks. So if you're willing to deal with that part...
I contemplated what exactly I'd say to women, how I would reach out now given my condition. Would I give recognition to it or let my bloodied and wired mouth speak for itself? The meds kicked in and I drifted back to sleep.
My eyes fluttered open again, and I was told I could return home that evening. I pressed my tongue into the vacuous space my teeth had once occupied. I knew the next six weeks would bring challenges, frustrations, and surprises. I looked back at my phone, now dead.
"Nurse, I need a charger," my voice was comedically unintelligible, muffled by handcuffed teeth and blood. "I need to go home."
Next week: Part 2 in my Dating Without a Voice series, in which Elise reveals the painful truth about her emotions, and the women of OKCupid respond in a surprising fashion.
For more from Eric Barry about sex and dating, but sure to subscribe to the Full Disclosure podcast in iTunes.