I called to make the appointment without thinking of the reason.
“I’d like to make an appointment with Dr. Gladwin,” I told the receptionist. I could say I was tired a lot, which was true. Maybe I should be checked for anemia.
“What type of appointment?” she asked. “Are you sick?”
“No,” I said. “I just wanted to—”
“Is this your first time seeing Dr. Gladwin?”
“Yes,” I said. “But she’s seen my mother.”
“Are you a minor? Are you on your mother’s plan?”
“No, not a minor,” I said. “I’m twenty-two. But I’m still on my parents’ plan.”
“I’ll schedule you for a physical exam,” she said.
That Wednesday I came for blood-work. I didn’t see Dr. Gladwin. I saw Jeanie the nurse, who pricked me three times unsuccessfully before telling me I had the smallest veins she’d ever seen.
“I’m gonna have to use itty-bittiest needle on you,” she said.
Two weeks later, I’m standing barefoot on the cold linoleum floor of exam room 4. I’m wearing a paper gown and a brand-new pair of underwear: full coverage bikini briefs with lace trim, which I thought was just the right choice for today. Dr. Gladwin’s hands are cold and dry as she presses the flat of each finger into the skin of my throat, playing my glands like keys on a piano. This was always my favorite part of going to the doctor, but I look at the ceiling, stretch my neck out as far as I can, and try not to let her know I’m enjoying it.
Dr. Gladwin has striking silver-grey hair cut in a blunt bob with longer pieces in front that curl around the corners of her jaw, and I think about wig shopping with my mother. “I want a bob,” she told me. “A good, angled bob,” miming the shape with her hands in a swift gesture under her ears, as if the quickness of the motion had something to do with the nature of the shape.
Dr. Gladwin’s skin looks sun-kissed, like she was just recently on vacation. Freckles are scattered across the bridge of her nose, and her wrinkles make her seem weathered but healthy. The kind of wrinkles that look like they came from pressing your face into the wind during a good sail.
“Do you smoke?” she asks.
“Do you drink?”
“How often? How many drinks per week?”
“I don’t know, five? Ten?”
“Let’s keep it closer to five, shall we?”
“Do you do drugs?”
“No. Well, what counts as drugs?”
“Any illegal substance, or the illegal use of a controlled substance,” she says.
“Oh,” I say. “Then no.”
Then silence while she listens to my heart; sucking air in, sighing it out while she listens to my lungs.
“Your mom says you’re graduating this year.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Two more weeks.”
“She’s very proud of you.”
This close, I can see a dusting of blonde hair above her upper lip, and I wonder if she bleaches it.
“Lay back,” she says.
I swing my legs around and scoot back so that the paper that lines the examining table crinkles. It always reminds me of the kind of wax paper they use at delis to wrap up meat and cheese—I think of the way the grease turns the paper transparent, and I worry that I might start sweating without knowing it.
“OK,” she says. “I’m just going to take a look.”
She opens my gown, walks her hands in a circle around my belly button. She presses deep in some places, and I imagine my organs parting to make room.
“Your mother’s a tough cookie.”
“She was up against some harsh odds.”
“Dr. Gladwin is the nicest woman,” my mother would say during that time. “Just a great lady.”
And I would feed her bits of pot brownie, saving the last bite for myself.
“Didn’t we just have dessert?” my mother would say to me.
“Mom,” I would say. “I’m not eating it because it’s a brownie.”
And then she would look at me, her tired eyes still managing to race in scrutiny up and down the entire length of my body.
When I would try to help her dress, when she was too weak to lift her arms into the sleeves of her pajamas, she would allow it momentarily and then wriggle away from my touch.
“I’m not a doll,” she would say. “I don’t need you to play dress-up with me.”
Dr. Gladwin is not an oncologist. My mother would just go for check-ups. It was nice, she said, to see a doctor who was just interested in the general stuff. Aches and pains and runny noses.
“The cancer doctors don’t listen,” she said.
Listen to what? I wanted to say. I’m here. I’m listening.
“How often do you do a self-exam?” Dr Gladwin asks me, kneading the flesh of my right breast. I had a boyfriend in high school who worked as a line cook at the local Greek restaurant, and he told me once, while we were lying naked on the futon in his parents’ basement, that when the older cooks were trying to teach him how to prepare the dough for pita bread, they would tell him: “You gotta feel it up like a tit.” From then on, whenever he touched my breasts I thought of dough, and now whenever I handle dough I think of breasts.
“Once in a while.” I say. “I did it once, recently.”
“It’s very, very important,” she says, squeezing my nipple. “It’s in your family, even though your mother’s wasn’t breast.”
“I know,” I say. “But aren’t I too young?”
“No, no. Never too young,” she says.
“OK,” I say.
I used to hate the way my mother would look at me when I changed clothes in front of her. It’s silly to be modest in front of your own mother, but I always felt her eyes on me, and I would try to suck in my stomach and stand at a complimentary angle.
Once, last summer when I was the thinnest I’d been in years after having a horrible stomach flu, she came into the bathroom as I was stepping into the tub. I watched her watching me as I weakly lowered myself into the hot water, and when I finally said, “What Mom,” she said: “You look just like I did at your age.”
Now I’m standing in my underwear, facing the wall, while Dr. Gladwin stands a few feet behind me, examining my back like an impressionist painting, or at least that’s how I imagine it.
“Have you ever been checked for scoliosis?”
“Yes, in high school they used to—“
“Don’t turn around. I can’t see your alignment. In high school they thought you might have it?”
“It’s because your right leg is just slightly longer than your left. So your hip is higher. It’s very common.”
“Oh. Thanks,” I say, not knowing what I am thanking her for.
“You can put your robe back on,” she says.
I pick my robe up from the examining table, wrap myself tightly in the textured paper, tie the elastic belt that cuts into the flesh of my stomach and I stand there for a minute.
“OK, you can come have a seat,” Dr. Gladwin says.
I realize it’s almost over. I suddenly feel a little panicky. I sit down.
She reads me the results of my blood work. Cholesterol: 108. Triglycerides: 72. Glucose: 96. Iron: 82. All of which are completely normal, she says, as if she expects me not to believe her.
“Do you have any questions for me?” she asks.
What parts of my mother did she allow you to see? is what I want to ask her. But I don’t.
She allows the silence for a minute. I pretend to rack my brain. Then she puts her hand on my hand.
She has a large diamond engagement ring and silver wedding band, and I can feel the cold metal resting on my knuckle. Her hands are slender, the fingers long and delicate, the skin translucent and stretched over the bones and veins, which are thick and green like stems.
“You’re a healthy girl,” she says, looking at me like she’s trying to read my face. “And your mother is going to be fine.”
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