The pain occurs to me, and then I put words to the pain, and before long I am in a cardboard box hurtling through time. The appointment is at 4:45 on Thursday afternoon; be there at 4:30 if you don’t mind.
The first tip-off is the whispery shuffling of the quiet women in teal shirts. There are many of them, eight or twelve, and their hair is all fluffed and brown with attractive blond streaks, and they range from twenty to forty-five years old. Each has a nameplate featuring the place she was born, like those worn by college-age waitresses in tourist zones. Idaho hands me a Naugahide folder with some forms and a pen, pre-opened. I am eyeing the refrigerator full of complementary beverages—Have one!
The medical information form concludes with a series of faces, smiling to grimacing, and I’m meant to check which expression matches my current emotional state. I can’t choose just one; I add arrows to indicate the complexity of it all. Before long a whispery woman with submissive shoulders creeps up and asks if I would like to go back now. I follow her past a few posted pledges of compassion and kindness and then the regular diplomas. A whole new geography of women in teal shirts lives back here, and as I slip into the examination room they smile meekly in my direction and nod. I have my ears perked for screams or moans but hear nothing. Reluctantly, I sit down. Would I like to listen to some jokes on tape, or perhaps some Mozart? No thanks. Am I at all chilly, does she need to turn the AC down? Would I like to put my purse over here, where I can see it? Would I like a magazine or a book? They have the newest Danielle Steel.
Preliminary procedures begin and they are mild: the initial work includes putting cardboard squares and plastic spoons in my mouth and rolling them around. The doctor will be here soon, whispers a brown-haired girl from Oklahoma. Her breath smells like roses and mint gum. Her skin is hairless and uniform in color, and her little white hands are dewy and trembling. Would I like a short foot massage while I’m waiting? Well, all right. She says, no, let me, and pulls off my shoes, one after the other, and then she takes the first foot in one hand and rolls off my sock, too, and then it’s the other foot’s turn. She encircles my foot with warmth, and then she notices the embarrassed cold look of its mate, reaches over for the sweater hanging on her stool and wraps the waiting foot in that. The doctor comes in. He’s white-haired and stolid and solid, too. He pulls out a chair. Now, he says, tell me everything. Wait a minute—he stands back up and dims the lights so that the equipment gleams like stars lit by a golden moon. Where to begin? Is it all right if I tell you a little bit about my parents first? By all means, he says. Take your time.
While I’m talking, the food cart arrives. Actually, there are two—the savory and the sweet selections, a teal-shirted whispery submissive woman smiling over each one. I wave away savory and ask sweet to come forward. Always the difficulty: which to choose, whether to go chocolate or lemon. Or apple, in certain circumstances. Pineapple? I choose the éclair this time, and Oklahoma lets go of the second foot, wraps them both in the cashmere, and lifts her shoulders and giggles complacently when, after I’ve taken a big bite, a glop of filling falls down onto my hand. She licks it off with her slightly rough tongue.
The doctor says, let’s take a break and enjoy life while you’re eating. And I say, why don’t you eat, too? Ah, he says, patting his belly three times. Mustn’t. But don’t let that stop your enjoyment. Here, I’ll just take a brief toke from this hookah. The equipment, which I’d imagined, of course, to be designed to simultaneously repair and heal and cause pain, also appears to have a pipe mechanism. Between tokes, the doctor gazes into my eyes and murmurs guesses about my age. Surely you’re what, twenty, twenty-one? I let my eyes go all cat-like and murmur back at him.
Holding the scalpel in front of my face, he slowly turns it so I can appreciate it from many angles. I long to touch the edge—it almost sharpens into nothing! The edge seems to go on into infinitesimal sharp sharpness, a half-inch or even an inch past the visible, into the imagined.
After snacks and after I’ve finished my life story, the doctor says, well, we best get back to business, hm? And he says, now, you know this won’t hurt a bit, right? The friendly helper is showering my feet with ginger-scented talcum powder, and blowing between the toes to make the shimmering white dust uniform. I hope not, I say. Doctor keeps gazing into my eyes. May I? He brings his hands to my hair, and as he plunges his fingers in, as I feel the enclosure of his arms, I get the faintest whiff of his cologne, or his underarm scent, a kind of husky safe smell, no stains at all on the blue cotton.
He continues to draw his fingers through my hair and then he says, what were we thinking? Melissa, sweetheart, would you mind hooking up the gas? This poor young lady may be suffering. I’m smiling back into his glasses. I see my own reflection multiplied a hundred times. I choose the “ pink,” and Melissa—for that is the lovely girl’s name—positions the contraption over my nose. She places the dial in my hand and I am free to increase or decrease the strength of the drug at my whim. I breathe in.
The doctor begins the procedure. He shows me the scalpel’s edge. It is gleaming silver, the shiniest thing. We’ve changed the lighting back—not to awfully, consistently bright, but to a kind of mood lighting that involves targeted radiant spheres of illumination. Holding the scalpel in front of my face, he slowly turns it so I can appreciate it from many angles. I long to touch the edge—it almost sharpens into nothing! The edge seems to go on into infinitesimal sharp sharpness, a half-inch or even an inch past the visible, into the imagined.
One of the original problems with the pain was that it moved around; the root location had yet to be determined. Melissa exposes one part of my body at a time. They begin with my neck, first breathing softly near it, murmuring to each other. They have a sweet, ongoing relationship—intimate but inclusive. I am now part of the triad, the trio, the triage. I alternate between closing my eyes, experiencing soft slow fireworks behind my eyelids, and opening them again, localizing and then relocalizing sensation. Melissa has covered my neck now with a gossamer scarf, and she has lifted my T-shirt to expose my stomach. A narrative has formed in my head, which I suspect has been revealed to me by the truth of the pink gas, and I settle back into it, lay into it, like a hammock. I savor and repeat it, and I feel the pressure of the chill blade, and then the pulsing, exorbitant release that comes from the exposure of my inner, private self, to the air of the room. They move on to the other side of my ribcage. They move to my breast. My underarm. The doctor is telling me the quiet secrets of his own life as he works, and Melissa, who knows what I need, who is prescient, perhaps psychic, keeps my skin the right temperature, and now and then strokes, almost unconsciously, the top of my hand. It is her hand, my hand, and the gas meter, as one. I have begun to realize that the secrets of the doctor’s life have merged with my own, and that in that synergy or parallelism, in that conversation, is a kind of grander realization—something necessary and frankly profound, albeit quite simple, for the whole world, for peace on earth, and for the unification of all natural species and even plants. A little blip in time occurs and now they are both asking me if I would but roll over, just to my side? Not certain how long they’ve been asking me this—a second, ten? With Melissa’s help, I turn—a slight disruption, a forgetfulness regarding the story’s thread, but I crank up the dial on the pink and soon I am settled in again. The doctor is rubbing his palm around my right buttock, as if searching for something, for the right angle. He puts his head down, listens. For a moment I feel the wisps of his white hair, the hair of a god, on my skin, and it is the physical manifestation of the light rays coming in. For this we’ll need a bigger blade, he tells Melissa. Of course, she says, and leaves off her attendance briefly to reach for the silver box of tools on the nearby swiveling shelf. She has trouble opening it, and places the discarded small scalpel in her teeth as she opens and reveals the set of implements: silver, sharp, brilliant. Ah, he says, once again lovingly caressing the knife before using it. Allowing me to see it first—as you show a child, for instance, the thermometer before sticking it in.
I don’t think I’m fully feeling what happens next, but whatever it is seems to actually increase sensation in some way, for a surge of emotion, a wave of language, explodes under my eyes, and it is fierce and pleasurable, even as it unsettles me. Afterward, I am breathless, grateful, and yet almost regretful that it’s over, that the sound of things has once again quieted down. My fingers on the dial once more.
They turn me on my belly after that and work on my shoulder blades, one at a time, and then on my upper left thigh. When they are done, they return me to my back. The gossamer completely covers me now, a web of silken threads. The music in the room has also returned, a counter-narrative to the drug, and I am briefly suspicious that, like a second brake in a driver’s ed car, there is some other dial, manned by someone else—Melissa? the doctor?—that can diminish the pink gas even as I turn it up toward the maximum. The food cart women are back; I see them out of the corner of my eye, but I do not want a savory now, on top of the sweet. Too much—not the right combination, not the right order to things. Melissa and the doctor are speaking to each other, laughing about something that happened at the office party last week, last season. I feel the knit of the stitches throughout my body, and they, anyway, are a tremendous relief, a relic of my existence. Melissa rolls my socks back onto my feet, kissing one then the other, before she pushes my shoes back on. The shoes are small weights, like anchors, dragging at me. The doctor is writing notes. His back is turned. Good, strong back! Good, strong man! But he is not the psychic one— when I think this, the yearning thought, he does not turn around. Melissa smiles down at me, Oklahoma, and she is clasping her hands together, returned to herself. But where is Oklahoma, really? I have never been there. I imagine wheat, sunshine, perhaps cows. But how does that compare to pain? Where did my pain go? Melissa, Melissa, where did my pain go? The gossamer is lifting. My feet are heavy now and you are leaving me, you are leaving!
Aurelie Sheehan is the author of two novels, History Lesson for Girls and The Anxiety of Everyday Objects, as well as a short story collection, Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant. She has received a Camargo Fellowship, the Jack Kerouac Literary Award, and an Artists Projects Award from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Recent stories have been published in Fairy Tale Review,New England Review, Nimrod, Ploughshares, Southern Review, Spork, and Willow Springs . She teaches fiction and directs the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Pain” is a piece from a longer project, One Hundred Histories.
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Let me go to New Orleans now and be tragic and beautiful.
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