“Steve, are you okay? Why did you call me so late?” Valerie said as she slid into the booth.
“I’m not okay” Steve said, not making eye contact as he looked down into his coffee. “And keep your voice down. People can hear us.”
“People. People have been watching us lately, and I don’t want them to hear us.”
“Steve, you are just being paranoid! Why would people be watching you?”
“Us. I said people are watching us. You too.”
“Who? This guy next to us? Why would he be watching …Hey! Don’t I know you? Aren’t you that comedian on stage tonight?” Valerie was staring over Steve’s show right at Tucker now, disoriented as to why he would be here at 2am with Steve.
Shoot. Tucker had recognized Miss Kappa from the show when she walked in, and also then Steve when she sat down in the booth with him. But, he was hoping not to be recognized in return. He was respondint to a text from Jenna asking him how his last show had gone. So far it was an amicable breakup and they still talked from time to time, checking in on each other’s life. He was two-thumbing her back a reply about she was not his only heckler when he was interrupted with Valerie’s question. Grudgingly he looked up and decided it was unavoidable that he have company with his eggs.
“Hi you two”, Tucker offered. “I thought I recognized you also. Welcome to my after-show office.”
“Are you here with Steve? Are you part of what’s going on?”
“I’m not here with Steve. But what is going on, now that you ask, and why are you here with Steve? I thought you were with Beta.”
“Darren – Beta, if you will – is back at the frat house passed out. Jerk. I was on a date with him, but I am not ‘with’ him in any sense thank you very much. Steve here set us up.”
“Really. I didn’t put that together at all from the stage that you two know each other. How do you two know each other?”
“We work together at the lab on campus”, Valerie said. She looked at Steve to check if he had calmed down any. “That’s where what’ is going on is going on.”
“Can I join you two? Would you mind? I can’t sleep and don’t really have anyone here in town to talk to.”
With Valerie’s nod in the affirmative, Tucker scooped up his plate of eggs and glass of Orange Juice and joined them in their booth. Steve was on the aisle side of his seat and sprawled out, so Tucker slid in next to Valerie on the opposite side. It did not escape his notice, given his newly single status, that Valerie was an attractive young woman. Sure, she was considerably younger than he was but that was not a deal breaker. Plus, she was fresh off of a disappointing date with Beta and maybe he would have a shot at asking her out. He would like to start dating when he came back to town after the film festival in Chicago, and his senses were on high alert to the possiblilities.
But, Tucker was also an observational comic, and his senses told him that there was an interesting story here to observe. “So, what’s up with you two?”, he asked Valerie.
Tucker reached down to his belt as he settled into the booth and unclipped the TENS device he was wearing. He could feel the pads on his back electrify as he turned up the amperage a bit. A tingle. A jolt actually, and he dialed it back a little. That should work for a while. He wouldn’t wear it to bed tonight, at least he didn’t typically. He just need some relief for the next hour or so. As he did every night since he had fallen off of that stage in the dark at the Trevecca Nazarene University. Ouch.
Tucker looked up from the dials and saw that both Steve and Valerie had suddenly stopped talking and were staring at him. Staring at the TENS unit in his hands, actually.
“What? Have you seen a TENS unit before?”
Steve and Valerie looked at each other. Steve shook his head in a “no” motion imperceptibly. Valerie looked away and ignored him.
“We have actually. A TENS unit?”, Valerie asked. Her countenance had changed, Tucker noticed. It was no longer a look of concern for Steve. It was more of an inquisitive face now as she looked at Tucker to her side.
“Well, that’s what the box that it came in called it. I had to look it up in the manual to see what that means. It’s an acronym for “Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator”. Isn’t that a fine bit of technological gibberish. But, hey, when you need your pain managed technology is a wonderful thing.”
Valerie and Steve locked eyes again. Steve was growing perceptibly agitated and shaking his head side to side in almost a tic fashion.
Valerie looked back at Tucker. “Does it do that for you? Manage your pain?”
“Valerie!”. Steve’s eyes were pleading with her to stop there.
“Steve, I’m just asking questions. That’s what we do. We are researchers. I’m just asking questions. For research. Leave me alone.”
Tucker was fascinated with what he was observing between Steve and Valerie. It was a little concerning to be sitting in an IHOP at 2 am-ish with two people he didn’t know having this conversation, given that it was noticeably agitating one of the two. But, he was more fascinated with Valerie wanting to talk to him and he was certainly willing to answer her question.
“You two work together you said. Research is it? What kind of research?”
“Biomedical research. Pain, mostly.”
“Really? Do you solve it or inflict it?” Always the comedian.
“You would be surprised what will be possible some day in the field of pain. Dr. Evans is a visionary.”
“Dr. Maricela Evans. We assist her, as grad students. She’s a visionary.”
“You said that. I’d love to meet her, I’m sure.”
“Does it work for you?”
“What, the TENS unit? Yeah, I guess it does. For a while anyway. It’s not a cure, just temporary relief – and not total relief at that. Do you know how it works?”
“Steve does.” Valerie said, checking back on him with her eyes. “He’s the technical geek. An Electrical Engineering major as an undergrad actually. We drafted him over to Biomedical because we needed someone who knows how the technology works. I am biomed myself. I conduct pain studies.”
“Valerie, I’m telling you that they’re watching us. Keep your voice down.” Steve was not happy with the direction of the conversation, and was looking like he might leave.
“What would you say your pain level is right now, on a scale of one to ten?” Valerie asked Tucker as she took his wrist and felt for his pulse. That was more touch from an attractive lady than Tucker had had since his breakup with Jenna. She had his full attention.
“Hmm, that’s what they asked me when I went in to get this unit. How am I supposed to know?”
“It’s just a number. Pick a number. From one to ten please.”
“Yeah, like he would know”, Steve offered.
Tucker thought that odd, but ignored Steve and looked back at Valerie. “You sound like a doctor already. I have no doubt that you’ll graduate and get there.”
“Thanks. But, you’re being stubborn, Tucker. Just give me a number.”
“Fine. Well, I was about a nine when I got offstage. I went down to a four when I put this on in my apartment. I’m back up to a seven because Steve here is getting me a little on edge. I hope to go back down to a four with this increased juice.”
“That’s pretty perceptive of you. And complex.” Valerie smiled at him, pleased. Tucker smiled back, less aware of Steve in the booth with them now. “Most people just say seven. You must have been using this for a while. Did you have an injury?”
“I did”. Steve winced involuntarily at the memory. “Occupational hazard, I’m afraid. Stages look brightly lit, but they are dark and dangerous at the edges. I got too engaged with a heckler and walked carelessly close to the edge. I was holding my Eddie the Purple Monkey puppet – you remember Eddie, right? I fell on some chairs that were up against the stage.”
“I can see how that would hurt. Did you go to a doctor?”
“A doctor – well, a physician’s assistant. And a massage therapist. Then I even went to a chiropractor for the first time in my life, which is where I got this handy electrical gizmo to strap myself into. I got pretzled up a few times too, ‘adjustments’ they call them. It didn’t help me much.”
Valerie turned around in the booth sideways to see Tucker better. “Tucker, how confident of you in the numbers that you gave me. How confident are people really when they answer that pain question?”
“Well, it’s just a num..”
“And how much stock should the doctor put in that number?”
“Hmmm. That’s a mighty deep question you are asking me here at 2am in an IHOP doc.’
“I’m not a doctor, Tucker, I’m a grad student. Doing research. Those are questions that I am asking myself as we do our project. Dr. Evans’s project, actually.”
Rashida Maddox walked by and asked if any of them wanted a refill. She noticed that all three of them were sharing a booth now, and resigned herself to getting just one tip and not two from these booths. Valerie and Tucker got refills. Steve continued to nurse his drink.
“Valerie. You’re making me nervous.” Steve said. “Can we talk about something else? Mr. Elliot is a comedian, and I don’t think he is interested in our little research project.”
“Actually I am a bit of a tech guy too, with a background in engineering. I am interested indeed. Valerie, ask me your question again.”
“How confident are you with your number?”
“Okay. Okay. I see where you are going with this.”
“Well, what if my number was not accurate? What if what I thought was a lot of pain really was not.”
“What if I was a big wuss, and if what I thought was a lot of pain – a ten let’s say – really wasn’t in relation to what another person might call it.”
“Exactly”, Valerie agreed.
Tucker reached around and rubbed his back muscles a bit as he thought. “You know, I think I am pretty in touch with what pain level I am at. I have a life long databank of pain experience to judge it against.”
“True. But that databank is internal to your experience.”
“So, you are saying that what I think that I am feeling may not be rated at a different level by someone else?”
Valerie slapped Tucker playfully on the arm. “You catch on quick! We could use you on our project.”
“Sorry, I’m not a grad student. Although, I wouldn’t mind working with you.”
“That’s sweet. I’m not sure Steve here feels the same way. He would warn you off.”
“So this is what my mother used to tell me when I was a kid. She would say ‘If men could experience childbirth they would know what real pain is!’ I thought she was just talking about me being a pain.”
“It’s not just your mother’s saying. I’ve said that myself to guys about cramps. You guys are such babies at times.”
“Okay. We probably deserve that, I guess.” Tucker was thoroughly enjoying this conversation, and was thinking how much better it was than what he and Courtney, Rob, and Venkat had talked about for the last few months out on the tour. This was the kind of stuff that got his brain engaged and his blood flowing. It even made him forget about his back pain while they were talking. “But, don’t we all feel the same thing?”
“Okay”, Tucker said. “You are still in researcher mode I see. Asking questions you already have studied. We all have the same biology, don’t we? Wouldn’t we feel things the same way.”
“Well, we think we do. I have female physiology though, and you have male physiology, of course.”
“I have noticed.”
“Really? Stop it.”
“So, is it an illusion that we all feel the same things as other people do? Are we overrating empathy?”
“To a degree, maybe.”
Tucker had never thought about this before, and wanted to tug on the string a little more.
“Could it work the other way too? What if I had a high threshold for pain? What if I was stronger than I thought and not a wuss? What if pain that I was minimizing was actually serious pain that indicated that I had an injury that needed to be looked at?”
“Tucker, you are picking up on this faster than I thought you would. Keep going. What does a threshold of pain really mean anyway?
“That’s a good question. I can either take it or I can’t. But take what? Maybe it’s not a fixed amount of pain that everyone would recognize. Maybe it’s a sliding scale. Is that what your project is about?”
“Partly, Tucker. You are almost there. Keep going. Why would that matter?”
“Okay, I see. Why would that matter? Let me think about it a minute.” Tucker’s half-eaten eggs had gotten cold, he saw. He had lost interest in them. He thought about asking for them to get warmed up, but he saw that Rashida was all the way across the IHOP dining room, engrossed in what looked like a textbook. He wasn’t that hungry this time in the dawning early morning any way.
“It’s first”, Tucker muttered into his cold eggs.
“I’m sorry”, Valerie said. She knew he was close to where she had been for months. “What is first?”
“It’s the first question that they ask you at the doctor or at the emergency room. It’s what they base their triage on for the patients that they are seeing. I imagine that the doctor wants to know the right number each time in order to get the triage right.”
“Okay, I’m playing catch-up with you Valerie. But I get the gist of it. Your project is for the doctors.”
“That was the insight that Maricela had. Dr. Evans. She has asked many patients that question during the years she was in private practice. She noticed over the years that the answer to the number question did not always match what she should have gotten given the eventual diagnosis.”
“So”, Tucker asked, “have you found it yet?”
“A better way to know what someone’s pain level is without asking them to tell you?”
“Well, aren’t you a smart one. Yes, that’s our research project with Dr. Evans.”
“And? Have you found a method?”
“Not exactly a method.”
“No? What then?”
“ A device. That’s where Steve comes in, actually.”
“Valerie! Stop it, please! I’m leaving.”
Tucker saw Steve reached in his pocket and then threw a $10 on the table for Rashida, and start to get out of the booth. He saw some motion in his peripheral vision also as the two Asian men in military surplus clothing got quickly out of their booth and strode toward their trio.
“Crap!”, Steve yelled. As he grabbed his bicep Tucker saw that it was torn. He also saw what looked like three gashed lines that were bleeding through the tear. Steve stood and ran out of the IHOP doors behind the fleeing Asians.
Valerie grabbed her handbag and pushed up against Tucker. “Let me out, I better go after him.”
“Did you see that he was bleeding?”
“I did. I’ve got my car here. I’ll get him and take him by the infirmary on campus. I know the doctors on duty there tonight.” With that, Tucker let Valerie out of the booth and she was out of the doors of the IHOP behind Steve.
What was that commotion all about, Tucker thought? Why was Steve suddenly bleeding? And had he seen what he thought he had seen in that one guy’s hand. It was dark, and partially hidden, but if Tucker wasn’t mistaken it sure looked like that gun that they had used on him back in basic training for vaccinations – the kind that ripped a gash if you moved your arm while they were shooting the vaccine in. Did they still even use those? Why would he have one of those? He must be tired – he was certainly seeing things. It was definitely time to head back to his apartment to catch a nap before heading for Chicago and the film festival.
Tucker turned his TENS device off and waved Rashida over to get their checks. He left Steve’s $10 on the table for Rashida and went to the front counter to pay. He didn’t mind picking up their check too. It was worth it to have that stimulating conversation with Valerie, even though it ended oddly.” What was that about?”, he said as he walked out into the dawn.
As Tucker headed out on foot down Green Street back to his apartment, it occurred to him that Steve would likely know the answer to the question that they would surely ask him at the infirmary: “What is your pain level on a scale of one to ten?”