The waiting room was decorated in various shades of brown, broken up by the occasional tan. Looking from the dark brown wainscoting to the light brown floral print of the wallpaper – embellished by sporadic, uneven brown stains – to the beige carpet at her feet, all tinged with the faint but unmistakeable smell of antiseptic, Claudette wondered where the money that poured into the place went. It certainly couldn’t have gone towards magazine subscriptions, she though, flipping through a copy of National Geographic, circa 1993, that sat on the end table next to her.
“Claudette?” came the too-perky voice of the nurse, holding a clipboard to her chest as she poked her head out the door of the examination room.
Lisa’s mother sighed and stood, finally making her way out of the waiting room in small, uneager steps. She hadn’t enjoyed the long wait, but it wasn’t as if the examination was in any way pleasant. The entire thing was ridiculous, as far as she was concerned. Claudette had only gone to the doctor for a simple check up, not to get a lecture about the ‘Risks that come at certain ages’, as the man had so tactfully put it. He had appeared scandalized when he questioned Claudette about her last mammogram, and she had told him that she never bothered to get one. Why should she? So-called experts said to get them done every two years, but they’d only been saying that for the past five years. In another five years, they’d be telling you mammograms give you cancer and X-rays cure it, she’d argued.
The doctor hadn’t listened, and had given her a referral to a specialist – another racket, as far as Claudette was concerned. Just a scam worked out between two doctors to send patients back and forth as much as they could. But the doctor had insisted, pleading and cajoling, and Claudette agreed. He’d even told her that, since she was so long overdue for the procedure, he’d make sure it was scheduled as soon as possible, to take the load off her mind.
The only load on Claudette’s mind was the appointment herself. The poking and the prodding she’d have to endure, all so she’d have a little check mark in her medical files saying she had complied with the current accepted regimen. She’d just as soon not have the appointment, and not have the load on her mind, and if her doctor was that bothered, well, he could just jot down a little check mark saying Claudette knew and was aware of the supposed risks.
The nurse held a welcoming arm open, ushering Claudette into the examination room. Claudette scowled at her in response, not appreciating the false friendliness the woman no doubt forced to her face. She strode a few steps in and then turned on her heels. “Well?” she demanded.
Staying near the door, the nurse replied, “I’ll give you a moment to undress. There’s a robe on the chair for you,” she nodded at the pastel blue garment she offered, her ponytail bobbing with the gesture, before she slipped out, closing the door quietly, but firmly, behind her.
Sighing and repressing the urge to grind her teeth, Claudette placed her purse down on the counter and distastefully picked up the supposed robe. As she’d expected, it was of the disposable variety, the kind made from flimsy paper that crinkled and provided no real coverage. Screwing up her mouth, Claudette removed her jacket and unbuttoned her blouse, folding them neatly and draping them over her purse. She shivered as the draft in the room hit her unprotected skin, raising goose bumps on her arms and back, resentfully wondering how much it would cost the office to pay a little extra for another few degrees of heat. It would certainly be a nice gesture towards their clients, Claudette thought bitterly as she slipped her arms into the short sleeves of the robe and tied the garment together at the back.
The two sides of the robe gaped open, leaving her back almost entirely exposed. Rubbing her arms to try to return some heat to them, Claudette sat in the leather chair intended for the breast exam and pressed her back into the back of the chair, hoping to protect herself from the cool air. It didn’t work. The leather itself was like ice, and Claudette only succeeded in making herself more uncomfortable.
She tapped her toes, rubbing the pimpled flesh on her arm faster as she looked around. The examination room was worse than the waiting room, she decided. Nothing to read, a good deal colder, and the medical equipment lining the walls hardly bred comfort. The smell of antiseptic, no doubt sprayed over every surface each time the room was used, was much stronger here, cloying, almost choking. Each second dragged on, stretched further than the minutes in the waiting room.
Finally the nurse came back. Claudette almost forgot her annoyance at the whole process in her relief that the wait was over. Soon that relief was forgotten, as the nurse led her through the actual procedure, a parade of indignities. The robe had been a lie, a promise that she’d be allowed to stay covered throughout the examination that had not been kept. After stripping once again, the nurse had shown her the purpose of the medical equipment partially enclosing the leather chair, mainly by guiding first one breast, then the other, partway into the machine, only to have her flesh squashed and manhandled by cruel metal. The cold, the pain, the humiliation. By the end she was considering contacting her lawyer. There was no way this was a correct medical procedure, or at least, not one that needed to be done regularly, on women who had shown no signs of ill health.
As she finished the examination, as the nurse told her she’d have to go talk to the doctor in his office, as she got dressed, Claudette composed her rant in her head, filling it with threats and thick legalese, ready to reveal to this sham of an operation that they’d targeted the wrong mark. Her hands balled into determined fists, her purse clutched in front of her like a shield, Claudette sat primly on the chair in from of the doctor’s desk, preparing to destroy his practice.
“Oh, hi Claudette,” the doctor said as Claudette entered. “Please take a seat.” Despite the greeting, the man hadn’t even looked up at his patient, instead stroking his chin as he examined a file on the desk in front of him, his expression thoughtful, stern, maybe a little sad. Claudette wasn’t buying it. His imitation of Rodin’s the Thinker wasn’t fooling her. She knew this man was not as important as he thought he was, as important as he wanted everyone else to think he was. He would soon find out that Claudette was not above his attention, and he’d regret the fact that he’d tried to convince her otherwise.
“Dr. Romero,” Claudette started, “I want to have a few words with you about your procedure.”
Finally looking up from his desk, the doctor sighed. “Claudette,” he started with a nod, peering over his glasses, his stare penetrating. “This is the hardest part of my job.”
“You’re damn right this is the hardest part of your job,” Claudette told him. “I know you think this little operation is above reproach, but I’m not fooled. You waste my time, you have your machines manhandle me – ”
“Claudette,” Romero interjected, trying again, “Your test was positive.”
“Well, of course it was positive,” Claudette continued, “I don’t have anything wrong with me. And how dare you interrupt me?” she continued, obliviously resuming her rehearsed speech. “I’ll have you know that my lawyer – ”
“No, Claudette,” Romero cut her off with an air of finality. “A positive test is not a good thing. It means we found a lump.”
Claudette was momentarily shocked into silence. “Does…” she started, “Does that mean?”
“Yes. You definitely have breast cancer.”
“Oh,” she sputtered, the colour draining out of her face. Her stomach sank, and the browns of Dr. Romero’s office began to fade, black tendrils reaching through it as she retreated from the world. “Oh my god.” Images flashed through her head, so much more present than the ugly little doctor’s office. Her daughter Lisa, her future son-in-law Johnny… They’d have to know. She didn’t have much time, but she’d have to do all she could to help their lives, give them all the help she could for their futures.
She had thought she’d have so much more time.
As memories and people far away sprang to the fore of her mind, the smell of antiseptic and the sad face of Dr. Romero slipped away. The world became quiet. And then, Claudette was aware of a buzz, persistent and sporadic. The sound became more and more insistent, separating itself into something that seemed to think of itself as meaningful. Claudette tried to keep her mind on her plans, until the buzz broke through, organizing itself into words. “Claudette?” it was saying. “Claudette, do you need a few minutes?”
“No,” she shook her head, replying to Dr. Romero. “What were you saying?”
“If you’d like,” Dr. Romero started again, “We can spend some time right now going over some treatment options.”