Then came a dog

A fragile-looking old man hooked me up to antibiotics. The sight of the needle made me queasy and I squeezed my eyes shut. The local surgeon, Dr. Veten, gave me two anesthetic shots and started stitching up the wide gash under my nose that tore into my lip. When I opened my eyes every few minutes, the frame of his glasses filled my vision. I couldn’t stop asking him if I’d get a scar. Each time, he confidently said, “No, not at all,” in his steady French tenor, as he strung the needle in and out of my skin.

I learned why a doctor’s voice is important.

Dr. Veten, one of the country’s two oral and maxillofacial surgeons, was in his mid-thirties and looked like he could be on the cast of Gray’s Anatomy. My friend Gina told me he was a “White Moor,” as Arabs are known in Mauritania. I removed the blood-drenched flower-patterned toilet paper and showed him the wound. My elementary French had stayed at the scene of the accident and Gina had to translate, “It’s going to be fine.” He asked if the dog had been vaccinated. Gina said yes.

Gina drove me to the hospital in controlled panic through the evening traffic of beat-up cars and donkey carts in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott. With its flickering fluorescent lights, Clinique Kissi didn’t exactly inspire confidence. I sat on a cot with a paper-thin mattress. Flies accompanied the buzzing noise of the air conditioner. I was an industrialized-country snob, currently brandishing an open facial wound in a third-world desert.

Bakshish, a mutt Gina had recently adopted, followed us around the house when I’d arrived from the airport. After finally quitting a soul-flattening job, I’d imagined my visit to this quiet North African country on the Atlantic coast would be a good retreat for me to try writing something resembling a book, instead of just talking about it. In the bedroom, we were talking about dinner. I patted the hound’s head. “You are such a good boy, aren’t you?” I cooed, as we looked eye-to-eye.

It was then that the 50-pound, yellow mixed breed suddenly jumped up at me. I felt his teeth tearing into my face. It happened in slow motion. As soon as the dog released his bite, I cupped my nose and mouth. Blood poured out. Shockingly, it didn’t hurt. Images of shark attack survivors with massive teeth marks on their skin flooded through my mind. Are there hospitals here? If the dog bit a chunk of my skin off, can they patch it back? Will I get a scar? I hurried to the sink and gingerly moved my hands away from the face. Nothing was torn off. Thank god, I thought. Three lacerations. One of them was deep and cut into the right side of my upper lip, which was already bulging.

“Where do you go when you get sick here?”

“You don’t get sick here. I don’t know. Paris.”

I was lucky to not have to fly back to Charles de Gaulle Airport with a piece of skin dangling from my face.

The surgery took 40 minutes. This, too, was an important event, which I had to record. Gina refused to take a picture of me, so Dr. Veten did the honor. With dark blue sutures making a mini-rainbow shape under my nose—sixteen stitches—I looked like Frankenstein’s monster. We settled the bill—a whopping $260—in the mosquito-swarmed lobby.

As I watched my Donald Duck lip deflate to its normal size, the feeling of relief that it wasn’t worse slowly morphed into anger. I wanted to blame Gina—it was her house, her dog—but it wasn’t her fault. I felt trapped in the bone-dry heat. “I can’t believe I put myself in a position where I’m totally dependent on you!” I unloaded on her one morning when there was no electricity and water in the house.

I was trying to make good on my life, but then came a dog and ripped my face off. Shit happens, sure, but it felt like the universe was saying, “So you want to write a book? How about this for starters?”

In the weeks that followed, I remembered the terrifying second my face was locked in the canine’s jaw; when Gina sobbed as she put him to sleep and we sat in silence over greasy tuna sandwiches afterward. In the evening news, the world fell apart. So we are fragile—we break in accidents and wars, get shot out of the sky and are killed for propaganda. The world is a dangerous place. I had no other reckoning.

But time was a saving grace. It passed. It healed. And I was grateful for it.

© Katrin Park and Ex Nemo, 2014. Unauthorized use or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.