BERGAN FOR MERCY
“I had a coat like that,” said my elevator companion, once the doors slid shut and we began to ascend the floors of Bergan Mercy Medical. “Big and puffy one just like that. Looks warm.”
“Cold outside,” I muttered.
He was an older gentleman, dressed smartly in tan slacks and a checkered vanilla-brown button-down. His fine white hair the wind had mussed and pulled out sideways during his walk into the hospital, but he either didn’t notice the wispy disarray or didn’t care enough to smooth it down again. I’d been standing by the elevators, waiting for and simultaneously dreading the arrival of one, when he ambled nearby with his cane. When a pair of shiny, chrome doors threw wide their arms and welcomed us into its fuzzy, upholstered heart, we obliged and followed each other inside solemnly.
“Six, if you would please.”
The buttons for 2 and 6 glowed like full moons under the press of my fingers. I was only traveling up a floor. Room 206, according to the email correspondence I’d printed out and left lying on the passenger-seat of my car. We’re very close to the elevators, read the text. See you at 2 PM, the text also read.
I found the room easily enough. But I didn’t manage to twist the knob and step inside until I’d made three passes by the door, walking back to the elevator each time and drinking from a nearby fountain as if to quench some terrible, sandy thirst. The first time I passed Room 206 I’d almost used the wrong entrance. A piece of paper taped to the door insisted on QUIET. Behind the windowless maroon door interviews were being conducted: questions were being asked and answered, feet were restlessly tapping under the table, the crotches of dress shirts and polo shirts sweated through, teeth set on edge and chattering, tongues wagging, eyes searching—the 2013 Alegent Health School of Radiologic Technology soul crushings were in progress and not to be disturbed. Clearly they had a system in place: applicants were to enter through the other door, down the hall a tiny shuffle or two. This other door I passed once more, fearing the all-capitalized APPLICANTS—plural—meant there would be other warm bodies, other shaven faces and sharp, judgmental eyes and that they would, at the sound of the bolt sliding back and the door opening, all at once sweep upon me and stare, appraise, intimidate.
I was not ready for this. It’s possible I would have never been ready for the half-hour of questioning I later endured. The shuffling of my transcripts and test scores under dry fingertips. The occasional tight-lipped smile at my nervous chuckles. Maybe if I’d allowed another two or three milligrams of a certain anti-anxiety drug to dissolve into my blood, maybe I could have handled the pressure better. I become wonderfully apathetic with Lora Z’s hand in mine. She makes me feel fine. And that uncaring, unbothered appearance is often mistaken by others as confidence, a supreme self-assuredness. Like the world is mine: I’ve come with my A-Game, as the cliche goes, and all you suckers are just in my way; like I’m another young go-getter, fire under his ass, never satisfied—happy, but never satisfied.
Sitting at the head of a rectangular table the color of walnut, two nurses at my left, the program director, Rob, on my right, maybe with a few extra milligrams thickening my blood I could have funned through essay question after essay question. Had a good time, maybe, told a few jokes even though I don’t know any good ones. Got a little goofy on these good people, as I’m prone to do with Lora by my side.
Instead, I waited meek and little in a plush Merlot-colored chair, head and body in a consciously congruent position(1), fingers laced and tented in my lap, resting on the balled-up winter coat also in my lap. Too nervous to even be nervous, too numb to feel the jittery nerves that normally make my hands tremble and my palms sweat-slippery. I was in it now—this interview, it was really happening and I was here, stuck in it with these three other people, and there was no escaping. The table like a deep watery murk under our chins, my folder gutted and the papers scattered and floating everywhere on the surface. Once the questions began I’d be drowning for sure—in my own bullshit. I think that’s always been my tactic during these panel-esque interviews: talk and talk and talk until their eyes are dazzled, starry, their heads spinning. Take credit for every good thing that happened in my past work-life, whether I’d been involved or not. Survival is all that matters. Try, for thirty-odd minutes, to look like a competent person. Try to exit without your figurative tail between your legs, your figurative head drooped in agonizing embarrassment.
I listened for the breaths of the other three people at the table, and then for my own. Watched Rob sift through more paper. I felt good about him, at least. Relaxed by his presence. He seemed to be the goofy one out of the three, the one who didn’t appear bothered if others thought him odd. Down the side of his neck flamed a little rash. Razor burn. Seeing that reminded me of a time years ago when I struggled with the same issue, only my rash had been terrible and feverish. Poor technique then. Bad razors. Too much shaving against the grain for that prized baby-bottom smoothness. I never had one of those idyllic moments in front of the mirror at age twelve, face loamed in clouds of Barbasol, learning to shave with Daddy. I had to learn on my own. So, like Rob, a rash had also colored my neck. Eventually it creeped up the sides of my face—the right side worse than the left side. I remember hiding myself away during that awful time, suddenly neurotic—more than usual—suddenly eager to pull the hoods of my sweaters and jackets over my head and recede into shadow like a leper, terrified someone else might see the shiny inflamed patches spotted everywhere on my flesh. Though I found myself suffering through the imagined and occasionally real stares of those around me as I worked and ghosted through daily life, I couldn’t imagine being at ease with the condition, as Rob seemed to be. I couldn’t imagine being all smiles and laughs and charismatically kooky. Nevertheless, as I watched him ready for our interview, I kept my eyes on his razor burn, thinking, Now here’s somebody I can relate to.
(1) Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest.