Dorothy knows this morning she had too much luau last night. She swats the radio alarm dead — she’s beyond snooze — and thinks about calling in sick to work. This makes her feel marginally guilty. She gets up to take a couple of pills to damp the dull ache in her head but as she does, her left ankle buckles beneath her weight and she goes down. Dorothy pants with pain. Her eyes water. She curses Max for not being there.
Dorothy limps to the phone and, now feeling justified, calls in sick. In truth, there’s some prestige to having a musculoskeletal injury regardless of how you come by it where she’s employed, at Workout Wonderland. Next she calls her doctor, whose office, the recording drones, won’t open till nine. It is seven fifteen. She considers going to Quik-care, the new 24-hour clinic she’s seen advertised, but prefers pain to total anonymity.
Dorothy thinks she’s supposed to ice the ankle but, unsure, decides to google for advice. She hobbles to the coffeemaker first, then the computer. But as she’s about to enter “sprained ankle,” she remembers MedInfo, proprietary demo software Max gave her as a gift — his first — which she’s uploaded but never used. She opens it and scans the directory for “sprained ankle,” hoping it’s not too pedestrian a complaint. Evidently it is. It’s not there. She tries “ankle, sprained” but that’s not there either; then “twisted ankle” (nope); finally “sports injuries,” which is such a broad category it spawns another directory.
Fast getting nowhere when time is of the essence, Dorothy quits and Googles “sprained ankle.” So many hits come up she’s unsure where to start. She is still only marginally conscious. As she randomly clicks and reads and clicks some more, her vision blurs from the pulsing ads and her mind is swamped with products when all she wants is information.
“This should be simple,” she rails at the screen, thumping the desk with her fists.
The gesture jostles the coffee cup, which dumps its contents all over the keyboard. Dorothy puts her head in her hands and cries in earnest. Her ankle throbs. Her head pounds. Coffee and tears drip onto her thighs. It is seven twenty-seven.
◊ ◊ ◊
“I can work you in at ten fifteen,” the medical receptionist says when Dorothy calls at nine oh-two. Dorothy envisions Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters trying to squeeze their big clumsy feet into the glass slipper. She labors to sound grateful, but knows about getting worked in.
She sets the appointment nevertheless, then phones Max at the office.
“Run it under cool water,” he advises, enjoying the rare experience in their relationship of being in control. He certainly wasn’t the night before, not after three (or was it four?) banana daiquiris, too much pineappled pork, and coconut-oiled Dorothy in, and out of, a sarong. Luau-for-two: definitely one of her “inspirations.”
“The ankle?” Dorothy queries.
“No, the keyboard.”
How often he feels she expects him to fix it when he’s rarely sure what IT is. Well, this he can identify and take care of.
“Run it under… The keyboard? But Max, the electronics—“
“Dor, believe me, I know what I’m talking about. You know I know.” He pauses for return fire that doesn’t come. “Then disassemble it — see those three little Phillips screws on the back? — turn the keys upside down to drain, and let everything dry for a day or two before putting it back together. I’ll drop by tonight and check on it.”
Max feels inflated with authority as he hangs up. But his balloon bursts once he realizes he’s failed to follow up about the ankle.
Dorothy realizes too. But her ankle hurts worse than her feelings. It’s begun to swell. By the time she’s dealt with the keyboard, it’s begun to color. MedInfo and Google be damned, she knows she should’ve iced it.
◊ ◊ ◊
The waiting area is cavernous. Seven doctors share a space that, Dorothy figures, must serve hundreds of patients. It looks like most of them are there now. The battery of nurses is impressive, which is more than she can say for the magazine assortment: Sports Illustrated, Hunting Today, Golf Digest, U.S. News and World Report. One redeeming feature about going to see the doctor used to be reading People magazine without the embarrassment of having to buy it. She looks forward to getting her teeth cleaned twice a year; her dentist takes Architectural Digest and Rolling Stone.
Dorothy comes prepared to wait. She knows the clientele isn’t called “patients” for nothing. She brings an article she’s meant to read for weeks — about calcium intake for women — but hasn’t managed the time. It comes from the Should Pile: the stack of self-improvement clippings she builds with righteous intent but never quite gets around to. She brings a card she bought to send to her friend Janice, a trainer formerly at Workout Wonderland, who’s just had a mastectomy, and a survey received in the mail from a citizen’s lobby, something about rating environmental priorities. She usually recycles junk mail unopened no matter how eloquent the pleas printed on the envelope, but despite Max’s cynicism — “They want your money, not your opinions” — she was seduced this time.
She works through the calcium article quickly, highlighting key points with a yellow marker. Then she pulls out the card but doesn’t know where to start. Dorothy heard about Janice secondhand and, lacking details, is unsure what tack to take. She hates to think she needs to take any tack. Somewhere along the line in all her schooling, shouldn’t there have been a course?
“Dear Janice, I’m so sorry to hear about your — problem? misfortune? diagnosis?”
It sounds so cold, so stiff, so remote, as if she’s afraid to get too close because mortality is catching. She doesn’t know whether to invoke the C word; how to be light without seeming jocular, serious without seeming gloomy; whether to sound cheerful, hopeful, empathetic, indignant at the cosmos, or all of the preceding. She doesn’t want concern misconstrued as pity or, worse, relief-it’s-you-not-me. Dorothy stares at the blank inside of the card long enough that her eyes smart from not blinking. She puts the card away. “I’ll call instead,” she decides, knowing she won’t for the reasons she’s not writing. She feels truly guilty.
Dorothy drags out the environmental survey. It comprises two sections. In one, you rank priorities numerically. In the other, you check Always, Usually, Sometimes, Rarely, or Never.
“It isn’t that simple,” she says out loud.
Surfacing, she notices several people looking at her. She wonders how long she’s been talking to herself and what else she’s said. The waiting room still seems full. It is ten fifty-one.
Dorothy gazes down the long expanse of carpet, beyond the clusters of chairs and sectionals, to the glassed-in compound where the medical corps oversees ops. They patrol the perimeter like white blood cells defending the body’s boundaries, but just whom they’re protecting — the patients? the doctors? the system? — isn’t clear.
Beyond, somewhere in the maze of offices and labs flanking halls lit too brightly with fluorescents is Dorothy’s doctor. She thinks about their relationship, wondering whether that word even applies. He periodically provides her a service, but does he think of her outside those times? Will he wake tomorrow morning wondering how her ankle is? Does he recall her history, match her name with her face before opening the examining-room door? If she left him for another doctor, would he care? Would he even notice?
A familiar sound filters through Dorothy’s reverie. She recognizes it as her name. Her name? By God, they’re calling her. She’s been worked in. It’s eleven eleven.
◊ ◊ ◊
Margie, the doctor’s assistant, ushers Dorothy into one of the examining rooms, weighs her, takes her blood pressure and pulse.
“Hmmm, blood pressure’s a little on the high side,” Margie tsks.
“You think?” Dorothy keeps this to herself.
“He’ll be just a few minutes,” Margie says brightly as she leaves.
Dorothy slumps. She knows about just a few minutes. A battered issue of Woman’s Day sits in a magazine rack, but she ignores it. She stares at the print on the wall, a pastoral scene: like something you’d find at a cheap motel.
For once, it truly is just a few minutes till Dr. Hazlitt appears. He’s in his mid-thirties, with a high, shiny forehead and, even this early in the day, five o’clock shadow. He sports a flashy floral tie, reminding Dorothy of the luau, and an attitude to match.
“Hi,” he says, her file in hand. “How’re you doing?”
This pleasantry strikes Dorothy as ridiculous. If she were fine, she wouldn’t be here.
It occurs to her maybe he thinks she’s come for her annual exam. Then it occurs to her that he hasn’t looked at her file. Then it occurs to her that no one bothered to note in the file why she’s here and he didn’t bother to ask. So much for their relationship.
Dorothy explains what happened. The doctor looks at the ankle, probes a few spots, checks the action of the joint.
“Hard to say for sure from clinical examination if anything’s broken or not. Probably just a bad sprain, but we’d best be sure. I’d like you to go to X-ray.”
He pulls out a pad of forms, checks some boxes, fills in some blanks, tears off the sheet and hands it to Dorothy.
“Margie will direct you.” And he’s out the door.
It’s eleven twenty-one.
◊ ◊ ◊
The X-ray tech, whose name tag reads “Al,” escorts Dorothy to a changing booth.
“You can wear your own shirt,” he says, handing her a pair of pink paper shorts with a drawstring waist. She’s relieved it’s not one of those demeaning gowns. “I’ll come get you when I’m ready.”
To pass the time — there are no magazines — she strikes a pose and regards herself in the mirror. Not enough definition in the upper arms but improving. Well-developed lower body: long, shapely thighs; calves a little too muscular. The rest hidden by clothing, she completes the picture from memory: hard abs, especially the uppers; no hourglass figure but no love handles either; flat butt with minimal sag. She nods to herself.
“Those sessions with PowerMan are really paying off.”
She twists her left flank toward the mirror, hoods her eyes, tries a sultry smile. She nods again.
“Not cover girl material, but noteworthy.”
Curtain of silky straight chin-length chestnut hair emphasizing large hazel eyes a little too close together. Bridge of the nose sporting a small bump, the vestige of a childhood fall; an “interesting” (Max’s expression) nose. Full lips, especially the lower, with (her mother’s expression) “curly corners.” Square jaw. Long neck. Smallish breasts; not prominent but nicely shaped and well placed.
“Janice.” She aspirates the name.
She tries to imagine herself without a breast. She thinks of Amazon warrior-women, said to have burned off the right breast which interfered with markswomanship. Her ankle throbs at the notion. She thinks of this month’s show at the Harrier Gallery — “Torsos: Homage to Sisterhood” — photos rendered all the more disturbing because the mastectomy scars look arty in black and white. She recalls a recent locker room scene at Workout Wonderland: one woman explaining her breast-reconstruction job to another. “After this heals” — she pointed to an angry red scar bisecting skin stretched tight over an implant — “they’ll tattoo me a new areola and nipple.” The woman actually laughed. Dorothy caught sight of the scar and had to sit down. Even the recollection makes Dorothy light-headed. She puts her hands on her breasts, to be sure they’re both there, just as Al draws back the curtain.
The X-ray room is cavelike, a grim place, she thinks, to spend your workday. Al leaves the impression he lives here; his skin is pasty, and his pop-eyes give him the look of a nocturnal animal, something perfectly adapted to dim light. His hands, which arrange her leg, are cool and clammy.
“Sorry. Poor circulation.”
Al points to her ankle. “Accident?”
Dorothy tells him the story. Al’s face expresses concern.
“Nobody at home to help you?”
“No, I live alone.”
As Al goes about his business, alternately taking film — “Don’t move a muscle now, hold it, hold it” — and repositioning the ankle, Dorothy wishes she hadn’t told Al about her living situation. After all, she knows nothing about him. Suppose the guy becomes fixated; he looks kind of lonely. He could get her address, her phone number, from the medical records. Dorothy’s mind gallops down disaster alley. She’s especially glad not to be wearing a paper gown.
“That’s it. You can get dressed now.”
“Did I mention I’m moving? Next week? Out of town?”
Al appears confused.
It’s high noon.
◊ ◊ ◊
Margie leads Dorothy to a different examining room, this one decorated with a print of an American Indian chief. Her stomach growls, and the dull headache of hours earlier returns.
An unfamiliar doctor enters and shuts the door.
“I’m Dr. Ballantino,” he says. “Dr. Hazlitt was called away on an emergency.”
“What seems to be the problem?”
Didn’t Hazlitt tell him? Didn’t Margie? Don’t the people who work here talk to one another?
Dorothy gives him long story short.
“Let’s take a look.”
But Hazlitt already did that.
Dr. Ballantino examines the ankle. Abruptly, he leaves. Dorothy stares at the Indian chief, whose stern look seems to soften. Minutes later the doctor is back with her X-rays, which he slaps up on wall-mounted lights.
“Looks clean. Don’t see any fractures, though something hairline might not show. Probably just a sprain,” he says to the X-rays, his back to Dorothy. He wheels to face her.
Without awaiting a reply, he runs on: “Elevate the leg and ice the ankle. Try the over-the-counter anti-inflammatories first for pain, but if that doesn’t work, fill this.” He hands her a prescription. “If you continue to have problems, give us a call. Could be a tear in the soft tissue. We might need an MRI. Take care now.”
As the door snaps shut, Dorothy asks, “ Who was that masked man?”
She could swear she sees the Indian chief wink.
◊ ◊ ◊
It is twelve thirty-five, the height of lunch hour, when Dorothy gets in line at the pharmacy’s drive-up window. She’s behind two other cars. The one directly in front of her, a mini-van, is full of children who bob in their seats. Dorothy envies them their energy: she is beat from the morning’s ordeal.
In the van, a red-headed boy maybe eight waves to Dorothy. He waits to see what she’ll do, his anticipation palpable. Dulled as she is, she can’t resist; she waves back. Red is delighted. She watches him engage the others and point to her. They all turn her direction, grin, wave. She returns the gesture. They wave again, the momentum building; they bob even more vigorously than before; they become the kind of silly you become only in a group. The driver, somebody’s mother, turns around to tell them to cool it. Dorothy is surprised it took her this long.
Red moves from waving to slapping the rear window with the palms of his hands in a kind of remote high-five. The others follow suit. Pairs of hands beat the glass like fleshy pink wings. The woman turns around a second time. Dorothy sees, by the contorted features, that now she is yelling. Wings retract, bodies revolve, but it doesn’t end there.
Red rides too big a wave to quit. He is on a dare; straining the limit, pushing the edge of the envelope. He rotates back, smiles broadly with teeth too large for his mouth, and gives Dorothy the finger. She flinches, as if deflecting a blow. The woman, watching through the rear-view mirror, reaches for the boy and whacks him good. The limit is reaffirmed. Red cries hard, unaware that boys don’t cry.
Dorothy feels responsible, catalyst of a chain reaction whose consequences she couldn’t foresee. And — again — guilty, voyeur of a drama that rips her heart but that she’s helpless to do anything about. It’s a familiar feeling, one she has watching the evening news.
As the crying winds down, Red wipes his teary face with pudgy hands that some day may do more damage than his mother’s. The cars inch ahead, the mini-van now at the pharmacy window. It is twelve fifty-seven. The boy looks one last time toward Dorothy, but her sunglasses screen him out. She has severed the connection. She observes from a safe distance. Total anonymity is beginning to have real appeal.
◊ ◊ ◊
By the time Dorothy stretches out on the couch to finally ice the ankle, it is quarter to two. Her head chatters. She rewinds events; freeze-frames; fast-forwards. She turns on TV, where — talk show after talk show — people gorge on the world of hurt. They do penance while millions watch, trading pain for “fame.” She is incredulous at the stories people tell on themselves. A woman whose husband divorced her to marry her mother. A wife who knowingly had unprotected sex with her HIV-infected husband. A blind woman terrorized by…
She and Janice are shopping for bras. She accuses Janice of buying bras too large and secretly padding them. In the store dressing room, she yanks down Janice’s straps to prove her point; sure enough, crumpled tissues fall out. Then Janice does the same to Dorothy with the same result! Suddenly, Dorothy is no longer in the dressing room but in the middle of the store wearing only her underwear, sunglasses, shoes. Janice is nowhere in sight. Dorothy tries to find the dressing room but can’t. She asks a sales clerk, who doesn’t know; she asks another, who gives her the wrong directions. The sunglasses offer false security — people can see everything but her eyes — but they’re her only shield. Desperate, she clicks her heels together…
The click of the front-door latch startles Dorothy awake. Every neuron goes on red alert. Every body hair stands at attention. Her heart slaps her chest wall like children’s hands slapping glass. She is dimly aware that her ankle aches, that the couch is wet from melted ice. The VCR’s digital clock glows five oh-five: as good a time as any to die. She only hopes this psychopath makes quicker work of her than the one she heard about on Oprah.
◊ ◊ ◊
Max materializes with a bouquet in one hand and take-out in the other.
“One of your ‘inspirations’?” she teases to cover her relief, as he hands her the flowers.
More like damage control, he thinks.
He puts the take-out, four containers of Szechuan, in the oven to keep warm.
Dorothy recounts the events of the day like a soldier telling war stories. Max sympathizes, something he’s learned to “do” when he feels responsible but can’t “fix it.” He offers to get her more ice for the ankle, which she declines. He brings her a blanket, which she accepts. She’s impressed he knows where the blankets are kept but doesn’t let on. He wipes the couch’s wet patch, soaking up the worst of it. He puts on water for tea at her request. Evidently he doesn’t know where the tea is — she hears cupboards opening and closing — but hunts it down without asking.
“Chamomile?” he calls out like a barker at a fair.
Still, he cleaves to technology for the bailout.
“Did you use MedInfo? It should’ve helped.”
“I tried,” Dorothy says. “But nothing came up for sprained ankles. Go figure. You access this series of directories and, well, maybe if I’d used the FIND command…I don’t know…Jeez, I was in pain, Max, it wasn’t time to ready the bloody manual. Then I Googled but the amount of information was overwhelming and then I spilled—“
“Think of it, Dor,” Max says, circumventing the rise in her voice, the edge to her tone, while handing her the steaming mug. He drops on the arm of the couch. “We’re zooming down the Information Superhighway with greater and greater capabilities and access to our world.”
Max’s brain zooms past her perplexity down a Superhighway of its own.
“Internet 2.0, 3.0…a wealth of ever-expanding information not just to retrieve but to interact with. And all at the speed of light.” The account man spins the pitch.
Dorothy steps on it and passes.
“Max, Max, Max, we don’t need more speed. We’re already moving too fast. I mean, where are we all going in such a rush?”
“And more information? More? When we’re already inundated with so much we dedicate most of every day just to managing it.”
She’s on cruise control.
“And — have you noticed? — the more so-called information we have, the less we know because so much of it’s noise. The more we have, the more numb we get. Did you realize, Max, studies show that sensory overstimulation leads to numbness? And the more numb we get, the less able we are to act. Oh, we consume, mistaking consumption for action, and then wonder why we feel so empty, why all the stuff we’ve bought and interacted with doesn’t satisfy.”
Max rubs the back of his neck.
Dorothy changes gears.
“And the resources to support all this? Information is unlimited and, God knows, so is noise — hell, they’re created out of thin air — but resources are finite. Do you think we can techno-fix-it-all? Do you really? Are you that naïve?”
Max feels off-balance as if listing to one side. The air appears hazy.
“And what about human relationships?” Dorothy wonders for the second time today whether that word even applies.
“What incentive will decentralized employees and social networkers have to venture from their electronic cocoons and physically meet? To make eye contact without a video cam to mediate? To catch each other’s smells? To touch? Interacting isn’t talking, Max. Transmitting isn’t communicating. How many people already have deeper relationships with their gadgets than with one another?”
Failing to right himself, Max sinks to the floor.
Dorothy floors it.
“And who are the gatekeepers? Who protects my privacy? Or, should I ask, who defines or maybe redefines what privacy means? Who makes the rules? Enforces them? Government? Ha! And who agrees to play by the rules? Nameless, faceless international cartels responsible to no one and nothing? Ha! Sounds like a jumbo case of big boys playing with even bigger toys while the house burns down around us.”
Dorothy slams on the brakes.
“What’s that smell?”
Max sniffs the air.
“Oh shit, the take-out!”
Max jumps up so fast he nearly blacks out and runs into the kitchen. Smoke seeps from around the oven door. He turns off the oven at the instant the smoke detector goes off. He rips off its cover to silence the awful screech. Gingerly, he cracks the oven door — smoke billows out — and closes it before the rush of air flames what’s inside.
Dorothy hobbles to the kitchen door. She watches, though not from a safe distance. There is no safe distance. There are no surveys, no cards, no battery of nurses, no sunglasses, no TV screens, to buffer her this time.
“No system is inviolable, Max. Even a fail-safe can fail. What happens when the fiber-optic umbilicus gets cut? When the Supersystem goes down because it gets infected with an HIV-like computer virus, or because an info-terrorist short-circuits it, or because someone leaves the oven on too long?
◊ ◊ ◊
Total anonymity, guilt, responsibility, the world of hurt, drowse on the doorstep while Big Brother slouches toward Bethlehem and Dorothy and Max talk till twelve thirty. Dorothy transcends the ankle. Max, who never stays over on weeknights, unexpectedly stays. The flowers he brought wilt, never making it to water. Dinner is neither mentioned again nor missed. The day’s events hang like smoke, ignorant of the speed of light. The keyboard, forgotten, drains on into the night.
copyright 2011 Carol Rosenblum Perry