Sunday, July 31, 2005

Inoculation

The morning of April second is slightly cold, a strange thing in San Diego. My mother ties a scarf around my neck and drives me to the pediatrician’s office. I’m going in for the first round of hepatitis B vaccinations because my high school, unfortunately, now requires them.

In the waiting room I pick up a copy of Highlights from six months ago. A little pale blonde girl with a jack-o’-lantern smile sits across from me. My mother is busy talking to some lady about tax day or something.

I look around, embarrassed to be the oldest kid here. Two little boys, possibly twins, fight over the remote control for the TV. Either way, I know they will both watch cartoons.

A stringy blonde woman who is presumably their mother (though she looks rather young) fills out forms on a clipboard. She looks tired. I try to imagine what her life must be like, but I can’t. My mind is firmly rooted in algebra, poetry, and premeditated, self-imposed social isolation.

“What’s your name?” the little girl asks. She is now sitting in the chair right next to mine.

“What’s it to you?” No, what I actually say is, “Britt.”

“Britt?” she says. “Is that short for Brittany? Because my name is Brittany. Sometimes, people call me Britt.”

“Nope, mine’s not short for anything, as far as I know.”

“Oh,” she says. “How old are you?”

“Sixteen,” I admit.

“I’m five and a half, going on six. Want to know what I’m here for? My brother Anthony is sick. He’s over there, the one in the red shirt.” He is one of the boys fighting for the remote.

“What does he have?” I ask.

“He can’t breathe sometimes. He wakes up in the middle of the night coughing his lungs out.”

“Really?” I say. She is probably exaggerating. Kids tend to do that. I flip to “Goofus and Gallant” to see what the prudish pair is up to these days.

“I tried to stop breathing once just to see what it was like,” Brittany says. “Two weeks ago.”

“That’s dumb,” I say, not looking up.

“I was in the bathtub, and my mom left me alone for a minute because the phone rang, and I went underwater. I was really drowning. Mom says there was water in my lungs. While my face was in the water I saw weird things. I saw the bathtub running over and the whole house going underwater. It was like the ocean. There were these shiny little fish and everything. The stairs were a waterfall. It was like being in an aquarium, I swear. The windows were like when you go to Sea World and see the whales in the pools and you tap on those windows and they swim over to you and you pretend to touch their noses. I was tapping and tapping on those windows, but they wouldn’t open. The water was getting black like somebody broke a pen in it. I tried the knob on the front door, but it was locked. I didn’t have the keys. Then I remembered that my dad had a dream about the sea once when he was little. He said he found a rowboat, but it didn’t help because the whole world was water, and he was water too, and I was water, and I was becoming a pearl in the mouth of a big oyster.”

“Then what happened?” I say.

“My mom got off the phone and pulled me out.”

“Were you all right?”

“She had to breathe into my mouth, and then I spit up the water. I didn’t know where I was. At church they said it was like I was born again.”

“They were probably just talking about Jesus. It was around Easter time.”

“No, they were talking about me.”

“Britt Jacobs,” the nurse says.

I wave a quick goodbye to Brittany and follow the nurse through the humiliating little gate to one of the examination rooms. I sit on the papered table. Mom sits in the brown parent’s chair. The wallpaper has an animal motif: lions, tigers, and bears playing jacks, playing marbles, onesies and twosies and threesies. They are obviously performing elaborate mating rituals in their natural habitat. Some even have thought bubbles above their smiling heads. The words are too small to read, so I conjecture.

Tiger to bear: “I see right through that poker face.”

Lion to tiger: “Raise you twenty wildebeests.”

Bear to lion: “If you don’t stop cheating, I’ll squeal about your night of passion with that hyena.”

Still, I can’t get what Brittany said out of my head; she hadn’t said much, but it bothered me. I turn it over and over until her words become something like my own thoughts. This makes me angry, and I don’t know why. I walk out of the exam room a half hour later with two bandages on each of my upper arms, now sore from the shots. Brittany is still sitting out in the waiting room, biting her nails and swinging her legs which don’t quite reach the ground.

I don’t know what comes over me, but I lunge forward and grab her by the collar of her shirt.

“Who the hell are you supposed to be?” I say. “My younger self resurrected from the dead?”

She looks terrified. I watch her pupils dilate.

“Answer me!” I say.

Just then, the stringy blonde mother comes over and slaps me hard across the face. “Stay away from my daughter,” she says. “How dare you say these things to her? She is just a child.”

“She is not your child,” I say. “She is me.”

“What is wrong with you, Britt?” my mother says. She doesn’t recognize me when I’m not catatonic. “I’ve never seen you behave this way before. Come on, we’re leaving.”

My mother takes my hand and pulls me out of the office. On the way home I imagine the car slowly, slowly filling with water.

3 Comments:

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