Written by Panio Gianopoulos on Friday, September 21, 2012
This happened ten years ago.
I was in my apartment in New York City, watching my cat and wondering why she always pulls the catfood out of the bowl and eats it on the floor. The only reason I could imagine was that if the catfood were a gazelle carcass, then dragging it onto the floor would make it easier to defend from other cats. A decent theory, except that whenever I put a slice of turkey on the floor in front of her I have to manually steer her head toward it. If basic food location is a problem for cats, I couldn’t see how much effective gazelle theft went on. Then the telephone rang and my cat raced out of the kitchen to hide in the shower.
It was a telemarketer telling me I was eligible to receive a free check-up with a doctor at a new medical center. The doctor would examine my bones and nerves. The word nerve intrigued me; I asked for elaboration. Was he a neurologist? “I don’t know anything. I just call people on a list.” “Well you have to have a business card or something.” “I honestly don’t know. Would you like me to schedule your free appointment? You can bring up to two friends.” “Friends? What for?” “They can have a free check-up too.” “All my friends are healthy,” I answered suspiciously, and scheduled an appointment for the following Monday at 12:30.
On Monday I considered not going, because I’m a coward, but as cowards go I’m uncharacteristically curious. So I climbed onto the N train heading from Queens to the Lexington Avenue station. A man without a nose sat across from me, blowing into his cup of coffee. I juggled the change in my pocket and watched an old woman sleep.
I found the office tucked into the bottom floor of an apartment building. It hadn’t been decorated, unless you counted a water cooler and some empty chairs. The doctor was a beefy man with an enormous head. As he watched the receptionist photocopy my insurance card, I couldn’t stop looking at his head. Maybe enormous isn’t a big enough word for the size of it. I felt bad for his neck.
The doctor brought me into a little office and asked me where the pain was. “What do you mean by pain?” I said. “Are you in any pain?” he said. “Not particularly.” “No pain at all?” I shook my head. This was clearly a new one for him. He looked out the window. I wondered if he was married. He had that resigned look of mute exasperation a lot of married men share, and I figured I’d probably have one day. Part of the treachery is that you surrender to it. Nobody makes you. “What about discomfort?” he tried again. I thought for a moment. As a rule I like to please–antagonism isn’t my strong point–so I said what was mostly true, “My lower back is a little tight.” He smiled. He had me lay back and raised my right leg. “Any pain?” “No.” He raised my left leg. “How about now?” “No, sorry.” He took my right leg and twisted it in a strange way but I still felt nothing. “You’re pretty flexible,” he muttered, and then twisted my left leg in the same way, but more forcefully, until I felt a twinge in my hip. “Yeah,” I said, “something hurts.” “Why don’t we do an x-ray?” he said. “Sure thing,” I said, “You’re the doctor.”
He sent the receptionist out to lunch, leaving us alone in the office while the x-ray developed. We sat quietly in different rooms for ten minutes. Then he came in with the x-ray and dropped it and picked it up and clipped it to a light box. I was horrified. I was as curved as a longbow. “Do I need to wear a brace?” I asked, while not-too-idly wondering if the sympathy sex I could elicit from this would be worth the trade. “Your spine is healthy,” he said, pointing at it with a silver pen. “This curve is beautiful.” He held up a yellow plastic spine and showed me how nearly identical it was to my spectrally bluish-white one. “Look at that,” I said, “I have a good-looking spine.”
We admired my spine for some time, its knobs and overall voluptuousness, but then he pointed out how it turned a little to the right toward the bottom. “You might want to correct that,” he said. “It’s my backpack,” I said, “all the cool kids in high school wore it on one shoulder only.” The doctor suggested aggressive therapy to correct it. The word aggressive scares me. But it had only been a half hour, and no other patients had arrived, even the receptionist wasn’t interested in coming, so I lay on a table and let him strap four electrodes to my back. Little jolts of electricity coursed through my muscles. I started to sweat through my shirt. I thought I smelled smoke through the disposable, hygienic paper.
For ten minutes I was mildly electrified. After he removed the electrodes, he briefly massaged my lower back. He had me turn onto my side and yanked on my shoulder until my back cracked. It felt good, that is, it felt like nothing anymore. I want absence. I don’t think that’s so strange.
We walked to the front of the office, the receptionist still missing, only her abandoned yellow walkman to mark her, and the doctor pencilled in my appointments for Wednesday and Friday. He said in six weeks he could have me good as new. I said I couldn’t wait. I planned to cancel the following day. I’m fairly sure he knew it too. The doctor walked me to the door and we shook hands. Next to me were four chairs. I looked at his enormous head. It seemed an entire continent of knowledge could reside inside of that mammoth skull. I was sure that in some context–hope, vision, failure–he was a great man. I’m a coward but I believe in people. “Thank you,” I said, and he opened the door and clapped me goodbye on the back with his small expert hands.