I wasn’t always like this—not ghost-white and broken. Once, I was alive. I rode horses and played the violin. I was going to be a doctor like my father. Once, I used to like leaving the house.
My mother died in the fall. It wasn’t the bright, gorgeous fall—all flickering gold and flame-orange—but the dead kind, when the trees are bare and the leaves have all turned brown and dried up.
After she was gone, the world seemed much too big. It was so much simpler to keep to myself. I have no pets, no friends or houseplants, just a one-bedroom apartment and a few thousand books. I didn’t become a doctor, but I work for one—a clinical psychologist who was looking for a receptionist to double as a research assistant. When you have no friends, you don’t mind collating data on a Friday night.
My employer is a noted specialist in the field of pain, though in the daylight, he might be confused with any other doctor, warm and ingratiating in his tweed coat. During office hours, I take dictation and keep track of appointments. I make coffee. I usher patients in to the office. Sometimes, I listen at the door. They talk about abandonment, about being left behind. They lie on the couch and talk about mothers who ignored them, fathers who were drinkers. I listen with interest, trying to decide if any of the doctor’s advice applies to me.
The parade of after-hours girls is more troublesome. They gather blithely in his waiting room, hoping to be selected for one of the research trials, thinking scrapes and pinpricks are a small price to pay in exchange for eighty dollars and a lollipop in cellophane. Thinking the tests will only be an inconvenience, a momentary discomfort. But I know better. The doctor by day may be tweedy and reassuring, but it’s only his disguise. At night, he becomes a different man, fork-tongued and lab-coated, all sterile scalpels and stainless steel needles. You should never take candy from strangers.
The psychology of suffering is a delicate field and pain is an elusive thing—made of nerves, neurons, panic. It must be measured, studied like cancerous cells or weather patterns. In the pain trials, I am the trusty assistant. I wear a white smock. I take notes and count incisions. Sometimes, I clean up blood—but only sometimes. The doctor has a remarkably steady hand.
While he works, he talks about art and literature. He tells me about the lives of famous shut-ins and I think he is trying to make a point. His favorite is Emily Dickinson, how she put on a white dress and closed the door on the world. The doctor worships her. He told me once that her self-imprisonment shows fortitude. It shows dignity. He said this while testing the response of the median nerve in female subjects aged nineteen to twenty-seven.
In the deadly quiet of the night lab, I double check his work. I catalogue the results and send the girls home blank-faced and weeping. My notations are precise, but perfunctory. In my own mind, I have already tallied the results.
The doctor wouldn’t understand. He doesn’t have the humility to believe that I know something he doesn’t. I’m only the assistant, after all. I’m only the one who counts the wounds, who gives the girls their money and then sees them out. He doesn’t know what I know, that pain is not and will never be the point. That all his schemes and trials and his sadistic games are useless.
He’s looking for the great discovery, the miracle of suffering, but all it boils down to this: a person can go home dead, even when their heart’s still beating.
Photo by quapan