1. Please briefly state in the box the reason for your visit:
We’re halfway through Kansas, side by side in crumb-covered seats. I’m counting yellow lines on hot pavement as I shift into 5th gear. Your head is bent low over your anatomy textbook, and you’re poring over pages threaded with tubes, webs of pink nerves, and tiny words I can’t pronounce. I’m trying to drive steady as we close the gap between now and my new apartment. Between now and buying sheets for the bed I don’t yet own. Between now and when I take you to the airport for what might be the last time.
In these eight hundred and fifty miles of liminal motion, I’ve been wanting to communicate how I feel when you’re in the driver’s seat: capable, laughing, away from the textbook. So far, I’ve failed to come up with anything more impressive than saying “I love you” after a long day of driving and a few glasses of wine, as we lie in cheap motel beds with the lights off.
We aren’t talking about our impending distance because I see it as a concept for consideration, but you see distance as a number. For you, miles are hard facts.
2. Please describe any family health issue below:
Your family taught me the term “doctor” was too general; rather, you came from a family of orthopedic surgeons and pathologists. Your mother stitched your knees at the dining room table after you split them open on the pavement at soccer. You followed her to her office, learned how to guide a needle through skin, learned how to bring two surfaces into a sewn seam.
My family taught me the term “patient” can be an adjective or a noun, but both involve waiting, a passive being acted upon. Compression socks and spoon feeding were needed by him. His medications were lined on the counter, his DNR formers were pinned to the refrigerator, by my mother. I watched my mother plunge a thin needle of insulin into his stomach, surprised how quickly we learned to routinize the unexpected.
You and I both spent time in hospitals, on different sides of the white curtain, but we both knew how to read the language of charts. I held onto this duality as evidence. How many parts of our body are paired? Aren’t you and I, therefore, anatomically sound?
3. Indicate whether you have experienced the following symptoms during the recent months by checking Yes or No.
For YES, please provide more information.
Awakening at night with shortness of breath? YES.
For months—maybe years—after my father died, I walked around with a mean little rock in my chest. A walnut. A peach pit. A charred, cold, lump. I felt my heart valves yawning with the effort of pumping grief through my veins.
4. Describe previous treatment for this symptom:
You came along. You read the human body like a book, earned a white coat, and we browsed stethoscopes online and then waited for the mail. You tore open the package and the stethoscope unfurled, hitting the ground between us with a blue plastic thump. In your hot Cincinnati apartment, you nestled the stethoscope on my arm, touched the veins on my wrist. We stayed quiet as you counted seconds. You said my pulse was low but steady; you said it was good. I felt my chest kindle. I wanted you to push aside the hinges of my ribs and crawl inside me.
You woke up at 5 every morning and put on blue scrubs in the grey light. I would crawl out of bed to make coffee, then climb back in and watch a wrecking ball team rip through the brick apartment building across the street. I’d watch for hours, imagining that the beep beep beep of trucks backing up was my own personal heart monitor. Finally, I’d pull at your brown sheets, smoothing and tucking them into sharp hospital corners so I didn’t appear bedridden.
By the time you came home from medical school, I would be nursing my third beer. You’d drop your books on the coffee table and collapse on the couch. You didn’t have much to say about the cadavers and their purpling skin. I tried to ask what it was like: is it hard to cut open a cheek? Yes, you said. There’s a lot of adipose tissue, it’s hard to get at the tiny veins and nerves.
You’d ask me what I did all day. I struggled to talk about cutting and reworking sentences—words when applied to anything but tissues seem frivolous—so I’d gesture out the window, at the rubble and dozing forklifts and say something like, So why they aren’t they called deconstruction crews?
Sometimes I’d lie on the couch and you’d palpate my knees, count my ribs, or tap along my stomach to find the tip of my liver. I warmed at your touch, felt useful, like I was more than a study, like I was reanimating your image of a body.
You’d run a warm shower and wash off the formaldehyde. I’d join you, pretending your hands on my hips hadn’t touched a dead woman a few hours earlier.
In bed, you’d fall asleep and I’d stay awake and mouth all the things I meant to say into the slope of your shoulders.
5. Diagnosis, Notes, Follow up needed? (Check yes or no and describe.)
If I keep my eyes on the glistening road, on the brown space opening up between us, and touch your hand, I wonder if you’ll notice my knuckles are cold.
If I tell you my heart will break when you leave, you’ll say, it’s not my heart, it’s the limbic system.
If I tell you I’ve read books about the limbic system and their sentences are dotted with uncertain words like, “seems” and “appears to be,” so how can you say that my heart won’t hurt? You’ll say that’s not how it works. It’s just evolutionarily sound to repeat behaviors that make you happy and avoid ones that make you sad.
If I ask you about the evolutionary purpose of heartbreak, if I insist you should know about these things because you’ve cracked open the human body, lifted up the sternum, seen our insides, you will tell me it’s only your second year of med school.
If I touch your hand it’s because I want you to recognize the horizon. It’s because I want you to chart the lines on the road, so you’ll know how many miles to sew shut. It’s because I want you to oversee the odometer, to diagnose these thousands of miles as stable. Not critical, as I’m sure you think they are.
But it’s so hot here, in the blistering belly of the country, so if you looked up, I’m sure you’d just see Kansas, see the body with its anatomical pairs, see us, flat-lining.
VERITY SAYLES is an essayist from New England. Her nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Crab Creek Review, Under the Gum Tree, First Class Lit., and others. She earned her MFA in nonfiction from Oregon State University in 2016 where she taught composition, served on the board of 45th Parallel, and fell in love with the pine trees. She now lives in Seattle, where she teaches English and creative writing at an independent high school. (@saylesteam)