A very efficient woman buzzes around me, her motherly gray bangs swaying with every maneuver. “Considering your age, we’re going to perform the scan, as well as an ultrasound.” You’d think she was twittering around the kitchen, baking cookies for her grandkids. Instead, she’s buffing the space-age machine that towers imposingly over us. High technology that cows me into submission. My kaleidoscopic internal world is irrelevant in this sterile, colorless examination room.
I’m standing topless, hands behind my back. A mannequin with foldable, poseable limbs. Expert hands guide the lead apron across my lower body. She manipulates me, tucking my breasts between the plates. The top plate is transparent, and she sends it down with a tap of her foot. My glands, impossibly flat.
No joy, sensuality, life. Still youthful and pert, they haven’t yet known the searching mouth of a suckling baby. They’ve never produced milk, never given life. Under this fluorescent light, they’re no longer fleshly beautiful symbols of my femininity or fertility. Here, they’re just a piece of meat, in a clinical setting. Like a sample in a petri dish, ready for fastidious, detached scientific observation.
Next room, another machine. Doctor enters. Arms up, supine. The ultrasound wand glides over my sore mountains. He stares at the screen, and I twist my neck up to watch along. He pauses at the sight of each furry black cloud. Two clicks measure them. Glide, click-click.
“You have benign cysts. It’s common, one in three women has them. They may get inflamed and sore, so we’ll keep an eye on them. There is nothing cancerous here.”
He wishes me a good-day, and doesn’t even shake my hand. I suppose it’s not medical protocol to shake a patient’s hand after you’ve prodded about and scrutinized the ins and outs of her funbags.
White coattails flap crisply out the door. I scrape the viscous gel off my chest and dress myself. Strange. Just beyond that door, I’m expected to observe a modicum of physical modesty, yet my rainbow voice can come back. Here, I am reticent in my nudity.
Back into the clean, fluorescent lobby, where I melt into a bucket chair. Vacant. Depleted.
The secretary mispronounces my name, and I answer anyway.
I take my charts, and the smile I give her feels awkwardly distorted.
I step out of the cool white clinic and back into the searing, chartreuse summer air. Breathe deep, hiccup. Sweet tears of relief. My weak protest mantra “I’m too young for this” that had marched so defiantly through my head has dissolved, overtaken by my mother’s insistent wisdom: “Check yourself regularly!”
I’m glad I listened.
No, no no…
My class was meant to start 2 minutes ago.
I’m upstairs, fumbling through my bag, ripping through the contents.
Where is it…
I’m aggressively breathing, forcing air through my constricting airway. I feel flushed, my heart is racing, and hot tears are starting to erupt.
I find my homeopathy tablets and shove some under my tongue. Breathe, take control.
I feel trapped. I’m deeply uncomfortable. I want 5 minutes to go outside and breathe. I want to walk and keep walking until I get home. I want to walk straight out of this reality, if it means I can get myself back. But for now, I have to swallow those needs and do my job. The only thing I can control right now is my breath.
I crunch through what’s left of the tablets, take a gulp of water, and paste on a smile. I descend to greet my student, who looks a bit annoyed at being kept waiting. I’m 5 minutes late.
A thickly sweet voice says, “Thanks for your patience. Shall we begin our class now?” A body goes into a classroom.
Me dissolves. Breath remains.
Walking through the vineyards on my way to the train station, my carrier pigeon buddy arrives to escort me to the station. He coo-coos alongside me until we reach the threshold between nature and civilization. There, his red beady eyes wink me a “Good luck.” Thanks, pal.
Arriving in town, it’s one of those days where I want to say “Fuck my job.” What am I, some kind of language workhorse? I resent the fact that the corporate masters own my time, even if it’s just 5 hours today. That’s 5 hours off my dreaming time.
All the same, I’m in town, and at least for now, I am indebted to my corporate masters. Unseasonably cold winds tug at my coattails, and my head is pounding for an unknown reason.
I tiptoe erratically around the sidewalk, studded with trampled bits of dog shit. No way am I getting my red leather boots dirty. The cold air invades my nostrils and freezes my brain, aggravating my headache. The fragrance of the first spring cherry blossoms irritates me even more.
The area around the train station is a lot better-kept than in other cities; no seedy sex shops or vaguely-disguised titty bars to be seen, no cannabis fumes in the air; just nondescript bistros that are a bit too antiseptic for my liking. I peek into one, and a middle-aged cook eerily stares back at me, while he scrubs an already-spotless zinc countertop with a clean white towel. Even their ashtrays are immaculate. Freaky.
I approach the monolithic structure, the medieval castle, squatting in the middle of town. Just across the street from its fat, monstrous towers sits another bakery, more modern with dark hardwood floors, and an alluring glow to its sandwiches and pastries that sit on deep blue-gray ardoise slate slabs. I pick up a kouign amann, a Breton specialty: it’s a crispy, flaky, buttery sticky bun. The hammering in my head starts to subside when I take a bite of the luscious pastry.
As I chew and walk on, I’m peeking into chic restaurants, neighborhood barbershops, deserted bookshops and quiet upscale boutiques. A stylish woman walks past, and the sickly sweet cloud of her perfume chokes me as she walks past, her heels confidently stabbing the ground with each step. I catch myself feeling inadequate in her presence, and I think back to a former student of mine, who was a picture of perfection: successful, affluent, immaculately dressed and coiffed. Yet her eyes had glistened with desperation when she confided how deeply she regretted the direction in which her life had gone. I wonder what happened to her.
I drop into another favorite spot, a red-bannered bakery run by a genial bald-headed baker, who always seemed to be dusting flour off his hands and apron in a cloud of magic. His breads and pastries are some of the best in town, and I order a sandwich for lunch. He grabs one off the top of the stack with his large hands, knobby and solid from a lifetime of kneading dough.
Finally, I slide into my favorite café, a neighborhood dig that’s clean, with a good atmosphere, and proprietors that leave you alone to think. I’d like to think I’m becoming a regular, alongside the old salty Italian man who critiques the French and their politics between sips of red wine, rolling his Rs and calling everyone cons (dumbasses)…
I ease into the seat next to the door and order an espresso with water. I catch a cool draft every time the door opens, along with a few wisps of cigarette smoke that sneak in. I don’t mind. I’m surrounded by rough caw-caw guffaws. The server who’s about my age, the older couple that runs the joint, and the old-dog regulars; they laugh and gibe between bites of food, sips of wine, drags of cigarettes. Like a goddamn family sitcom. They’ve got nowhere else to be, except there, giggling and shooting the shit. Hell, neither do I.
I realize my headache has ceased.
I’m satisfied with life in this moment, and smile into my hot cup of black coffee.
Just another Thursday.
I broke down crying at my desk before class.
I shook my booty to reggaeton music.
I bit my nails.
I had private telephone conversations.
I did unladylike things.
Those shining moments were captured, in addition to my horrific first forays into teaching: kids scribbling on the walls, scooting around the classroom, slinging various objects, and stupefied Me in the eye of the pandemonium, pulling my hair out.
Commute to work.
There’s the middle-aged homeless man, always perched somewhere on this commercial street, who I pass nearly every day. He squints upward at me, and we exchange nods and hellos. From time to time, I’ve given him my spare change, a bottle of water, some clementines from the market.
Today, I smile my usual hello to him in response to his greeting. Our daily call-and-response.
I see a young, bearded man, about 25 years old. I’ve seen him and other chipper young people, wearing a different color vest every couple months, canvassing for clean water, AIDS research, human rights protection… All noble causes that have web sites I can consult for more information. I’m not looking to receive a lecture from a bright-eyed twenty-something about how I should be using my money.
I smile my hello in response to the perched man’s greeting, then see the young man approaching, in his fluorescent yellow vest, arms open wide and incredulous. “How about you give him a sandwich instead of your ‘hello’?” he chastises me in French.
I feign ignorance and reply in English: “No thank you sir, have a good day!”
I walk off, brain buzzing in thought. I wonder why he intervened. I’m sure he thought he was doing the Right Thing. He was so sure that he was justified in confronting me. He decided that I was someone who needed to be put in her place, that I needed a lesson in how to be decent to other people.
In his mind, I’m a cold, uncaring, callous, selfish woman. Am I? In my mind, he’s a self-righteous busybody that projects judgment onto others, which saves him from directing it inward. Is he?
We love weaving narratives from dubious scraps of information.
It comforts us to find a demonstrable cause-effect, an explanation to justify a conclusion we’ve decided. How much of our reality has been decided, packaged and sealed up, and stamped “TRUE” in our brain? No longer subject to analysis or criticism, or even logic, how many of the beliefs that guide our lives have we etched in stone?
That stranger is laughing as I walk by because they’re mocking me.
My friend hasn’t called because I’ve done something wrong and they’re mad at me.
I never win anything because that’s my fate. I was born a Loser.
That dog chose to piss on the tree nearest me as a power move; that dog has it out for me.
My silly brain makes these sorts of little decisions all the time. But I’ve learned it’s generally a good idea to subject them to review before filing them under “TRUE.”
Memories, circa 1995.
I had an “overactive imagination” that fed ravenously on anything mysterious or taboo.
I was morbidly fascinated by the true-crime and conspiracy programs my dad would watch late at night. I’d sneak out of bed and get a peek of the television; wide-eyed, I’d take mental notes about potential warning signs: creepy white guys and alien tracks were at the top of my list. Did you know that a distinctive stone is produced in the spot where an alien falls to the ground?
(I just tried Googling “alien leaves stone on ground where it falls on its butt” to find the original clip on Youtube. No luck.)
I would get a cold thrill when I heard the dramatic music of America’s Most Wanted. John Walsh’s composed newscaster-like persona told sinister murder stories with a detached, factual demeanor that totally creeped me out. I was haunted by the composite sketches and mugshots they’d display at the end of every dramatized murder re-enactment.
Immediately thereafter, I’d run to the bay window overlooking our front yard and rip open the heavy curtains to look outside. All I would see was the same orange streetlight glow reflecting off car windshields. Quiet suburbia. A little too quiet, if you asked me.
Thus was born the conspiracy-driven investigative fixation of my childhood.
I was ever-vigilant, on the lookout for crazed murderers in our suburban cul-de-sac. I also set intricate traps in my bedroom to thwart potential extra-terrestrial room invaders. Webs of yarn strung like a spiderweb, marbles on the carpet to make an intruder slip and fall, my toys placed with painstaking precision so I’d spot any slight disturbance or irregularity in their arrangement. The only intruders I ever caught were my poor parents trying to tuck me in.
Fast-forward to adulthood.
I’m a notorious fraidy cat. I don’t enjoy watching horror films, or any media with extreme, graphic violence. However, I’m still fascinated by grisly stories, true-crime cases, and creepy unsolved mysteries.
Hearing a true scary story around a campfire is way creepier than watching fictional dramatized storytelling on a big screen. A mental image is vibrant enough, and even more terrifying than someone’s attempt to visualize a “scary” image. Our imagination fills in the dark cracks with those terribly personal innermost fears, those secret things that take hold of us in our nightmares. Our own intimate fear triggers that make our pulse quicken and give us chills when we’re alone in the dark of night.
As for me, I don’t set alien traps or supervise neighborhood surveillance anymore. But I always lock my doors, keep my eyes open, and take an extra cautionary peek over my shoulder. Just in case.
I wake with a start; something’s not right. I look at my clock. 7:50. Shit, my train leaves at 8:08. At once, my body is electric and I jet out of bed. Wake F. Brush teeth. Clothes. Clean? Close enough. Breathe. There’s always time for mascara. Shoes. Door. Engine revs. Have a good day, darling. Slam door. Get to platform. Orange letters glow: RETARD ENVIRON 15 MIN.
Well, I’ll be. Train’s delayed 15 minutes. I’m going to be late for work.
I could stamp the pavement and act all outraged. But why should I? Fortune was kind enough to me today, why stress on what’s out of my control? Here, now, in this moment, I am in control of myself.
I take a deep breath.
The sky above is a deep dusty blue and the pavement smells like rain. I look beyond and down the tracks, where they bend to the left and disappear into the trees. A station employee unearths a rusty bicycle from somewhere, swings his leg around to mount up, and rides down-track. His orange reflective jacket billows behind him as he rides off.
A guy with grungy dreadlocks is playing music off his phone. He sets down a plastic Coke bottle filled with water, and lights a doobie. Funky hip-hop. Globby, throaty wow-wows of brass yield to punctuated syncopation of rapping. I tap my foot to the rhythm of his music. This makes way better company than the usual moldy office workers with their horrid morning breath, tapping their feet in disapproval. No, this train platform is where I can have a peaceful moment to myself today.
Just another Tuesday morning.