Shelly shivers as the nurse hands her the blue paper dressing gown. Why is it never warm in the doctor’s office? Is the lowered temperature some measure of health or efficiency?
She keeps her own home warm, admittedly an indulgence, not ‘green’ in ecology speak. She remembers how she cranked the thermostat up only minutes after Doug left for good, glad to no longer fight with him about the ideal setting.
She’s used to it being very warm, so perhaps it is just the contrast of temperatures that makes her shiver. The door closes, as the nurse leaves and it is time to undress. As she slides her colored garments from her limbs, her image begins to match the office; florescent and the palest pastel. Her body is waxy and white, as though her blood is shrunk to her center, leaving blue line traces where it once flowed. Her body is flabby as though her muscles have given up trying to fill her smoothly. She steps across to sit up on the exam table.
The space under the exam table, the dust free floor, somehow recalls her childhood bedroom. It might be because she’s naked and frightened and Shelly does recognize a forlorn wish for mother comfort but instead she thinks of the room in which she slept forty years ago. Under the bed, she remembers is a junk pile, mostly to be hidden from her mother. The darkness serves as both storage and as avoidance of anything that she feels guilty over. Abandoned projects. Stolen things. She remembers too that there is always dust and there is always a day of reckoning.
Today is a positive thing, she tells herself. After many promises to herself, healthy promises about regular exercise and eating right and to no longer buy wine or beer, and the eventual breakage of each vow, she is here. Even if it is a nightmare brought her attention to a very wide-awake problem, she still is responsible for this appointment. The years of self-neglect are past. It is easy, really, to book a physical. It’s just as likely to be a false alarm as not.
Thankfully, a few months ago she got to know this doctor, he is the one on call the night she broke her leg. Now she knows his vacation plans and the types of jokes he is liable to repeat. Several times she sought knowledge of his training and his attitudes toward aging women, in order to trust someone so young and with such ruddy cheeks. It is a small comfort but she knows something of the man for whom she made this appointment to appear naked before. In many ways a broken leg is a different sort of medical concern, but it feels like a practice run. Right now, Shelly is a grateful for the necessary introduction to this doctor.
Her doctor told her that it’s been broken wing weather. The snow is scant and then is packed into unforgiving hardness. Then because it really shouldn’t happen but did often enough to seem inevitable each winter, there is a light rainfall. The surface of streets and sidewalks match the hockey rink ice. People develop a mincing, careful stride and reach out to any available building or car to steady themselves. Stories of slippery mishaps filter into the store where Shelly works. A co-worker steps out onto his deck and slides right on down the deck’s five steps ending at the bottom with a broken arm and a couple of ribs. At the mall parking lot, a middle-aged woman, gets out of her car only to fall and slide half way under. She hangs on wildly to the vehicle door. Shelly recalls too, how the farmers in town for their supplies, mention spreading ashes from their burn barrels to keep the pregnant cows from mishaps. It is similar in intent to how the sidewalk cleaners and street sanders hum up and down, but drifting snow blows across the snow pack and polishes the ice even further.
The doctor and the nurse come back. Breezy chatter, floats at her and around her. Lie back, put your feet in the stirrups. Shelly wonders what her dry heels must look like, to avoid thoughts of bodily exposure elsewhere. Then she concentrates on the subtle shadows of the ceiling meeting walls at the corner. Why is there no background music, she wonders? There is always music to pacify the animal in us. But not here. She is to face her fears without background melody. Strange. Really, no amount of preparation, no rummage in mental cupboards could give her the edge she wants.
She becomes aware of how she is part of the medical worker’s routine, the placement of her body, the pass of tools, perhaps even the words, as actors in a play who know their part down pat. Down pap, even. This is how this is done, every time for everyone. Thoughts of her depersonalization lull her, sooth her. This is just routine. Then the speculum brings her swiftly into now, her body. Tense, she strives to steady her breath; it’s almost over, she tells herself. The phrase is sort of a chant with her, one of her ways of getting through something unpleasant. A pap-smear or a reprimand.
For it is reprimands that are the building blocks of her life. Under her childhood bed, her mother finds paper. Dust thick on it, clean pages spoilt. The paper, her mother guesses correctly, is from her school. That is stealing. That is wrong. Even more of a sin, it added to the cost of running a school, something that every tax paper paid for. That makes her thoughtless, greedy, and a sinful cheater. She is to pay for it out of her allowance. She pays for it, but it isn’t the end of it. Her mother watches her carefully from that day forward. Keeping her honest by a type of in-house crime watch.
Shelly blinks her eyes. Is that where her watchfulness came from? She picks out one of the insults thrown at her by Doug as their marriage disintegrates. Doug tells her he felt like he is guilty without ever seeing a trial. Then divorce papers render the last verdict, papers that she files in the same folder as their marriage license.
The doctor is almost finished with the exam, but as she knows, it isn’t the end of it. She’ll have to wait to know how this test turned out. Beginnings and ends seem always to loop into each other, never stand alone, always sliding and merging. She is alone again, to dress, on with her defenses, in with shirt tails and anxieties, behind buttons and knits and zippers go the emotions. It won’t be long before she can flee from this building. She trembles as she ties her shoelaces. She hopes that she will be warm again soon.
The spring is melting the snow quickly, the sun warm as if giving everyone a taste of summer. All during the winter past, she dons her best gripping winter footwear, refuses to carry more than on parcel at a time, shovels and places each step carefully. Her back is sore enough without taking a fall is her explanation for her cautionary actions. So, each day she goes from house to garage, from parking spot to work and all the other navigating of the day until she arrived home in the evening. Each day she congratulates herself on a safe journey. Then, on her way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, she trips over the cat, tries to steady herself, reaches out to the towel rack which breaks. Her final resting place, as she named it, later she would add dryly that it was a grave situation, is on the bathroom floor with a broken leg.
Now clothed in normality, she notes the doctor has his mask in place too, his clipboard shields his body. He uses the comfortable collective ‘we’, and tells her of the next steps. When to make the next appointment, what to expect, as if she is a button on his coat that is undone, oh bother, and he must fasten it hastily.
There is no workman compensation for her, her accident didn’t happen on the job and by the time her leg is healed, an anxious portion of her savings is gone. She is able to work part time, her boss invents a job of answering phones and processing invoices, rearranges workspace to accommodate her immobility. She manages to keep her sanity. She comes out of the winter with a new appreciation of pain and kindness and how an explanation of cast and crutches is demanded constantly. Her story is expected to be of the icy street variety and eventually she answers the what-happened-to-you question with a breezy ‘any guesses?’ To mention the cat is to see the unspoken question about her sobriety. The feline presence is already accurately linked to the end of her marriage. The small town, like a fish bowl, leaves few places to hide anything.
She leaves the doctor’s office and gets into her car. It is later than she thought she would be but her boss should realize this doesn’t happen often and she is normally caught up with her work. Anything waiting, she can handle, even if she has to work late. Beside her on the passenger seat is the work estimate for the car. A troubling amount, she’ll have to arrange an installment plan to pay, and she hopes the garage will trust her and give her that option. Even she can hear the worrisome clunk as she wheels around corners. Shelly hopes the mechanic is being honest with her, sometimes a woman never knew for sure. She can’t put off it any longer, she really can’t afford to replace her car and can’t live without it either. She wonders if Doug is responsible for her facing these repairs. She doesn’t believe he is capable of sabotage but he might have known of future problems when the car became hers.
Back at the store, she finds far more papers waiting for her then she thought possible. Shipping invoices wait. Her boss pokes his head through the door to tell her the computer system is losing inventory numbers. There’s some glitch. She takes a deep breath and blows it out, as close to swearing as she allows herself on the job, and pulls out a binder and starts flipping through the pages. What exactly would you call this meltdown? Loss of data? Incomplete functions? How much is it going to take to fix this? When will she get the rest of her work done?
She will work through what she can, but the thought of staying late makes some inner coil balk. She can’t. She needs some quiet time for herself. The day is rotting, and crowding her thoughts towards opening a bottle of wine. That isn’t a good idea, drinking alone is a guaranteed battle with guilt. But it doesn’t really matter that much. This time she really needs it. Shelly ignores the part of her that mentions she is guilty of doing what she said she wouldn’t. Subconsciously she understands that she is already doomed to continue, but her conscious mind states that it will be the last time. She might be going over the Niagara Falls in a barrel but right now, she is still upstream and can pretend.
Suddenly the inventory program seems to be working, she checks it a few more times then tells the staff that it’s a go. She returns to her office and begins into the stack of papers.
As she stars sorting the white and pastel papers, she thinks, these papers will have to keep. She will file what she can, keep track of the paper trails that she will have to follow, to find the lost, to record items and money. Someday her life and all the lives around her are going to be recorded and noted on a piece of paper, she thought. There will be so much of her, her feelings, her thoughts, her dreams that will simply vanish. The last paper will be filed, and she can accept that, but what will happen to the promises?
On the way home, she stops at the liquor store and while on the backside of the wire racks of liquors, she goes through her change purse and finds four two-dollar coins and one ‘looney’ and a number of quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. It’s come to this, she thinks, but better cash then the credit card. Then it becomes easier to decide what to buy, the price tag is her guide. She has to add in the GST too, she remembers and finally her selection choice is down to two. A small bottle of decent tasting wine or a large bottle of what she knows is evil on her stomach. Her pondering is interrupted by the clerk who asks if there is anything he can help her with. No, is her automatic response. Thanks, she adds as she realizes how abrupt she sounded. The young man sports a tuft of hair in the chin hollow under his lips, an eyebrow ring, but he does have a clean t-shirt on. He hardly looks old enough to work here.
If he could help her… Shelly’s thoughts go through an absurd list. Do you know anything about cars? Do you know anybody who’d be interested in meeting a 45-year-old divorcee? Do you have the winning lottery numbers for the next 649? The young man would think her a crazy old bat, if she asked any of those questions. She would be crazy. But old? From his point of view, yes. Old.
Her hand hovers above the large bottle of cheap wine. Five fingers, hers of course, but they’ve caught her eye. Nails-bitten, knuckles-swollen, skin-neglected.
What if she totals something other than her change purse? It is good she got to the doctors for her physical. The results would be the results and that isn’t today’s concern. Today, she had been grateful for her boss, a decent man. Doug isn’t in her life any longer and while she’s lonely she isn’t in constant turmoil. She has a cat for company, and providing she doesn’t trip over him, he has done her no harm. Her home is affordable and her car needs repairs but is still good enough. She has a future, at least on paper. She’s made a promise to herself, that sooner or later she’ll have to keep. Starting now.
Liz Betz resides in rural Alberta, Canada, where she enjoys her retirement hobby of fiction writing. Her short stories have been published in numerous publications, most recently Pif Magazine and Spadina Literary Review.
© 2019, Liz Betz